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Air Crash Remains Still Unrecovered

While the government has been reluctant to send soldiers to the scene of a February plane crash, local residents search the wreckage for booty.
By Wahidullah Amani

Hayatullah, 32, proudly displays his foreign banknote, convinced he is a rich man because it carries so many zeros. He has no idea that the two million Turkish lira bill is worth less than two US dollars.

The banknote is part of the booty he collected on a day-long hike to the wreckage of Kam Air Boeing 737, which crashed during a blizzard in February, killing all 104 people on board.

Earlier this month, government spokesmen acknowledged that there are still body parts strewn across Mount Sapari, about 30 kilometres east of Kabul. It seems it will be a long time before all the bodies are recovered and fully identified.

The government has halted recovery efforts on several occasions, citing the rough terrain and the danger posed by landmines in the area. In mid-March, one soldier was killed and another injured in a mine explosion while attempting to bring remains down the mountain.

“It would be foolish to risk a life in order to retrieve a dead body,” said defence ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi at the time.

But earlier this month, the local news agency Pajhwok reported that the remains of at least five more crash victims were still up on the mountain.

Following the Pajhwok report, Azimi, who heads the commission charged with recovering the bodies, told a press conference that the bodies had been brought down to Kabul.

“On April 6, five bodies of victims of the incident were transported via helicopter from Chinari [the area around the mountain] after we received a report that the area had been cleared of mines,” he said.

Acknowledging that there may be still more remains on Sapari, Azimi said further recovery efforts would have to await demining operations.

So far, the government said 43 bodies have been identified and turned over to their families. Identifying the rest of the remains recovered will require DNA analysis.

The DNA testing is being done by the Italian government but no one is prepared to say how long the process will take.

“We seem to have parts from 110 bodies, but there were only 104 people on the plane,” said Zaher Murad, head of the defence ministry press office. “We cannot really tell at this time whether we have everyone or not.”

But while recovery teams seem unable to reach the crash site because of the terrain and the landmines, local residents have been coming to the site, gathering clothing, possessions, and even scrap metal for personal use or resale.

Hayatullah lives in the village of Mullah Omar, in the foothills below the crash site. He told IWPR that it took him about three hours to reach the plane wreckage.

“I got there, and saw pieces of the plane, torn boxes, and bits of flesh. I was so upset that I could not eat at all that day,” he said.

But Hayatullah managed to compose himself long enough to come away with the Turkish lira note, 1,000 Pakistani rupees and a pair of children’s shoes his son now wears to school.

Mashuqullah, a tribal elder from the village, said he travelled to the crash site when he heard that bodies remained at the scene, in order to give them a proper burial.

“I walked the area from 11 in the morning until four in the afternoon, but saw nothing resembling a body,” he said. “I saw photographs, documents, and small pieces of flesh.”

Mashuqullah said he also found a mobile phone, which he is ready to hand over to the next of kin if they can be found.

Mobile phones were a popular item salvaged from the site.

Ghulam Farooq, whose son-in-law was killed in the crash, told IWPR that when he recently called his dead relative’s mobile phone number, it was answered by someone who claimed to have purchased the phone from a soldier in Kabul.

“He said he would return the phone provided that I give him the amount he paid for it,” said Farooq.

For those with loved ones killed in the crash, the wait has been agonising. They are angry, and take out their frustration on the officials charged with providing information.

“The government is deceiving us; they tell us every day that we will receive the bodies in four days, but those four days never seem to pass,” said Mohammad, whose brother, sister-in-law and their three children perished in the crash. “We don’t want anything other than the bodies of our relatives.”

Mohammad, along with a small band of others, goes to the Kabul Military Hospital every day in the hope that he will be given either news or the remains of his relatives.

Many of the relatives do not have homes in Kabul, and the expense of staying on has been a heavy financial burden to them.

“People are borrowing money to be able to stay in Kabul,” said Mohammad. “Everyone has spent over 1,000 US dollars during this time, just waiting.”

Even for those who live in Kabul, the wait can be costly. Farooq said that providing accommodation for the mourners waiting to bury his son-in-law is slowly driving him towards bankruptcy.

"The rush of people to my home has had an extraordinary effect upon my budget, and day by day I get deeper into debt,” he said.

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff writer in Kabul.

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