28 April 2005

Zambia/Gabon: Life After Gabon Disaster Story And Pictures By Augustine Mukoka

Lusaka — TODAY marks exactly 12 years since Zambia lost that valiant national soccer team in the ill-fated Gabon Air Disaster, a mark that has left an unforgettable dent on the country's number one sport.

Lusaka's Independence Stadium Heroes Square will today be greeted by the solemn and grieving moments that weighed down the country when word went round that the derelict DHC-5D Buffalo plane, called AF319 carrying the 30-member delegation for a World Cup qualifier to Senegal had plunged in the Atlantic Ocean, shortly after take off in Libreville, Gabon.

The unfortunate incident had claimed the lives of 18 talented players, officials and airforce crew, leaving Zambians in a state of shock as a dark cloud fell on the country's most cherished sport.

Families of the victims of the air crash have not had it easy since then, with compensation only trickling in 10 years after the death of their departed loved ones.

And one such family that has felt the inpact of the disaster is late goalkeeper Efford Chabala's family where his widow, Joyce, has had a task of bringing up six children single-handedly.

Chabala served as the longest player in the national team at the time of the crash, an international career that spunned 10 years and left him ranking among the best goalkeepers on the continent.

And a flip on the other side of life ,gives a reflection of how some of the families have had to make do with life in the absence of their breadwinners.

Chabala's widow, Joyce has single-handedly struggled to take care of six children and at least managed to put them in school to secure their future.

At her Mufulira residence last Saturday, Joyce narrated how life without the then first choice national soccer team goalkeeper has been.

"The tragedy brought confusion and a lot of misery to us, left us disappointed and has made us suffer for a long time. It makes us hold bitter memories," she says in a low tone.

Despite all the hardship, Joyce has successfully seen her children getting minimum education and three of them are now pursing professional qualifications.

Trustridah, aged 24, Chabala's first born, is a nurse at the mine hospital in Mufulira and has become the breadwinner since her mother, Joyce, is out of employment.

Trustridah's tuition fees, as a nurse student at Ronald Rose Hospital and Training School, were settled by a well-wisher at a time when the government had not released funds to compensate the families.

"There was a man by the name of Mr Perlling who came with Mr Ponga Liwewe that helped me clear school fees for my daughter. She is the only one working in the house at the moment," she discloses.

At 22, Chabala Junior is a third-year technician in refrigeration and air conditioning at the Northern Technical College (NORTEC) in Ndola while Freeman, 19, posted excellent results at Grade 12 to earn a place at the University of Zambia where he is a first year student.

Freeman is enrolled in the school of natural sciences and hopes to pursue medicine at the country's highest learning institution.

When the national team perished, the late Efford Chabala also left behind a three-year-old son, Kingsley, while Joyce had a set of twins Memory and David in the same year of the tragedy.

Kingsley is in Grade 10 at Livingstone's Hillcrest High School while Memory and David are still in their last year at primary school at Eagle School in Mufulira.

But this consoling success in the children's education has not come on a silver plate for Joyce in the aftermath of the tragedy.

"My children know that they do not have anyone to lean on, except God. They have to fight hard and get good education so that they can rely on themselves in future," she explains.

Before the family received compensation from government, Joyce had to work tooth and nail to make ends meet for her family.

She is grateful to Mufulira Wanderers Football Club who gave her a job as a clerk at the club's business venture from 1994 until its collapsed in 2001.

Sometimes, Joyce manned gates during football matches as part of her duties at the club.

Joyce says people at Wanderers, a club her late husband served until his death, had been supportive in the family's difficult times.

"People who are there for you at the time you need help most must be appreciated because they know your pain. This is what people at Wanderers have done for us as a family," she adds. "This is why when the team loses a match, we lose with them as a family."

After the collapse of the club's business venture, Joyce started a hair dressing salon but it was not enough to sustain the family and barely existed over a year.

"As for now, I am doing nothing and depend on my daughter who is a nurse," she said.

Fortunately, Joyce has managed to invest the compensation into some structures that give the family revenue to keep them going.

"From that money, my children were able to secure themselves funds for school fees. This is how come we managed to send Freeman to UNZA before he applied and was awarded 100 per cent bursary," she adds.

Apart from sending the children to school, Joyce has also bought some houses in Lusaka, Kitwe and Mufulira which she rents out.

"Thanks to the current government for compensating us even though no money can compensate for human life," she narrates between sobs. "Twelve years down the line, the pain of missing a bread winner is still as fresh as it was that fateful day."

There was a moment of silence in the house as the children watched their mother narrate their tough moments in the last 12 years.

Joyce said her children are still traumatised by what befell the family and the nation as a whole on April 28, 1993.

"You can see their reaction even when there is a funeral in the neighbourhood. They get so much affected and remember what happened during those days but God has been on our side through all these situations," she says.

The recent tragedies that struck the country in Kawambwa where 45 pupils perished in a road accident and the Chambishi BGRIMM explosion that killed over 50 miners, have merely relived memories of the Gabon Air Disaster.

"These two tragedies in the same month that the national team died give us an impression that April is just a dark month to us," she says. "They say time heals, but with this, it remains so painful to us," she said.

Joyce urged the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) to organise high-profile international friendly matches to honour the fallen team.

She said families of the Gabon victims have learnt with sadness that people whose aim is to get into football administration have made fake promises as regards to organising international friendlies.

Joyce said she is disappointed with people who have tried to make fake promises only to earn a vote to get into FAZ.

"Most of the people who want to get into FAZ want to make fake promises but they know our plight," she bemoaned.

For Joyce, the only consoling aspect of life is her children's drive to excel in school.

"They can play football and obviously be like their father but nowadays education also matters. Junior played for Wanderers before going to college while Freeman was at a soccer academy here (in Mufulira). They can continue with that when they complete their studies in August," she says.

She, however, demands that the government should give the nation and families of the victims in particular a detailed and complete report on the plane crash.

Joyce believes if government officials have admitted the fact that the report released over a year ago was incomplete, it meant there should be a thorough and complete report yet to be presented.

"The government does not owe us money but a complete and thorough report of what led to the plane crash," she says.

And late defender Estone Mulenga's family, also based in Mufulira and whose situation is not so different from the Chabalas, shares similar experiences and sentiments on the report.

Mulenga was survived by two children, Estone Junior and Patrick.

Estone Junior, 16, says there was obviously a better explanation the government could offer on the report unlike the one that was released and raised a lot of questions that to date have not been answered.

Estone Junior is in Grade 11 while his young brother Patrick, 13, is in Grade Seven.

Apparently, very few families, if any, have received a copy of the report government released on the plane crash.

Soccer analyst Ponga Liwewe says it is sad that it took 10 years for the families of the air crash victims to be compensated.

"Twelve years later, one has to give a thought to their families, brave women like Joyce Chabala and Winnie Sakala who individually sacrificed tirelessly to get their children through school in spite of lack of support promised by the Chiluba regime," he said.

Liwewe also said one thing the current crop of Zambian players would do to honour the departed team was to learn from the way they lived.

"They worked tirelessly to bring glory to the nation, they put this country on the world map and they never gave up. Such spirit is essential today to take Zambia where she should be, to pull the country out of the difficult situation," he said.

Athletes in Action and Zambia national soccer team chaplain Field Mukupa encouraged families of the Gabon disaster victims to look to God as their source of encouragement.

"In our difficult situations, we should all look to God. He promised that He will never leave us and the answer is completely to surrender our lives, hope and trust to Him. He is the one that heals broken hearts," he says.

Mukupa says seeking comfort in God was the best solution in any trying moment and encouraged the children of the departed heroes to focus their attention on education.

Families of the Gabon disaster victims are scattered across the country but every year on April 28, they gather at the Independence Stadium's Heroes Square in remembering the fallen heroes.

And today is no exception as they will do that.

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