22 February 2014

Ethiopia: The Curious Case of Hailemedhin Abera

Dressed in Ethiopian traditional clothes Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, was addressing a large audience at the African Union headquarters Nelson Mandela Hall about the success of his company on Saturday February 15.

Hundreds of loyal customers of the airline, including Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, and Abdusalami Abubakar, the former president of Nigeria, Ethiopian businesspeople, and members of the diplomatic community attended the Ethiopian Airlines customer day. Tewolde was proud to present the airline's success story, which began back in 1946. He listed the milestones in the airline's 67 years of uninterrupted service. At the end of his comprehensive presentation he received warm applause from the house. He and his young but experienced management team members saluted the guests. In fact, Tewolde was so cheerful that he was dancing to Shakira's popular song, "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" at the beginning of his presentation.

He had enough reasons to be happy. His airline is one of the few profitable airlines in Africa, the first in Africa and the third in the world to own and operate Boeing's state-of-the-art jetliner, Dreamliner. The airline now has 63 aircraft, with an average age of a mere seven years. The airline's international destinations have reached 79 and it flies to all the inhabited continents except Australia. "Give us a few years and we will fly there," Tewolde told the gathering.

The national flag carrier annually makes more than two billion dollars. The revenue has grown seven-fold in five years. While he was celebrating his airline success on Saturday with his loyal customers, Tewolde had no clue about the bad news he would he hear on Monday morning. In an interview he conducted with The Reporter two years ago, Tewolde said whenever he wakes up early in the morning his checklist include making sure all Ethiopian aircraft have safely departed, followed by checking the price of fuel.

The incident that occurred on Monday February 17 has been recorded in history as another black Monday for the fastest growing airline in Africa. In the wee morning hours of Monday January 25, 2010, a Boeing 737-800, flight number ET-409, which departed from Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport crashed into the Mediterranean, killing all 90 on board. This Monday another incident took place in the early morning hours. Ethiopian Airlines Boeing B767-300, flight number ET-702, bound to Rome took off from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport with 202 passengers on board, and after an hour entered Sudanese airspace.

The aircraft was commanded by an Italian national, Captain Patrizio Barberi, a seasoned pilot who started his career in the Italian Air force in November 1979. After working there for almost 19 years Captain Barberi worked at different airlines, finally landing at Ethiopian in 2013. When the captain went for a latrine break the first officer, Hailemedhin Abera Tegene, locked the cockpit door and took the captain's seat. Then the first officer veered the aircraft off course to Geneva, Switzerland, far from its destination, Rome.

Passengers said when the captain came out of the latrine he started knocking at the cockpit door. The first officer reportedly warned the captain that he would crash the plane unless he stopped banging at the door. At first, the passengers did not realize the plane had been hijacked, thinking there had been a technical problem. But after understanding that the aircraft had been commandeered by the co-pilot, perceptibly, passengers and cabin crew members, led by Meron Mulugeta, were shocked. Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA), a wire service in Italy, quoted a passenger, Diego Gardelli, who landed in Rome from Geneva, as saying: "At one point a stewardess told us 'Are you Christian? Then pray to God. That's what I'm doing.'"

"We thought we were going to plunge into the sea," he said, adding that passengers were also told to wear oxygen masks for half-an-hour during the flight.

In an audio recording on Italian media websites, a voice said to be the captain could be heard trying to reassure passengers once they were on the ground.

"The pilot is still locked inside the cockpit but he is not armed," the captain is heard saying.

"He threatened to crash the plane. I don't know his motives and I'm not interested. All I'm interested in is the fact that you're safe," he said.

In a smartphone video circulated on You Tube and other video sharing sites, passengers could also be seen with their hands behind their heads as a police announcement is heard over the loudspeakers repeating: "This is a police operation. Do not move!"

The first officer sent an emergency signal to the Geneva International Airport air traffic control asking for landing permit which he was automatically granted. He landed the aircraft and lowered himself to the ground through the cockpit window, via a rope. He was arrested by the Swiss police and investigations are underway.

Who is the first officer?

Hailemedhin, born on July 31, 1983, in Bahir Dar town of the Amhara Regional State, is the ninth child in a family of 11 [six girls and five boys]. He is the last son, and according to a tweet by his older sister, Menberemedhin Abera, family members call him Tadlo, which translates as "he is lucky". But now one might say that he needs all the luck in the world to get out of the predicament he is currently in. The 30-year-old Hailemedhin, according to friends and family, was a smart kid, who scored straight As in his high school leaving exam. Most of his brothers and sisters are either in medicine or engineering. After finishing high school he was accepted at Addis Ababa University's architecture school, which he eventually left to join the national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, to become a pilot.

Endalamaw Abera (MD) is the oldest child of Abera Tegegne, a medical doctor by profession practicing in Khartoum, Sudan. "We were not that close. When he was born I was a second year medical student at Gondar University. We actually became close when I came to Addis Ababa ,where he was an architecture student. It was some 13 years ago. We reconnected and became close then," Endalamaw told The Reporter. According to the brother he was very close to his two younger sisters, Hiwot and Tnsae. "As a child he was very active and very intelligent. I remember when he was four years old his head was shaved and we were teasing him, and he said, 'In that case soldiers are fools too,'" Endalamaw said. The brother believes that Hailemedhin's social life was OK but he was a bit shy, feeling discomfort at large gatherings. "He was very generous, very caring and sometimes he does more than he is supposed to. Especially when it comes to money, he frequently helped people out," he said.

Hailemedhin lives in a rental one bedroom condominium house located off the ring road behind Sami Building in the southeastern part of the city. Positioned around the former Imperial Hotel, it is a mixed-income area. His flat is on the first floor of Block 7. The building can be considered to be a convenient living quarters for Hailemedhin as it is less than five minutes drive to the headquarters of Ethiopian Airlines. In the wake of the hijacking his home was searched by police, and is still guarded by members of the Federal Police.

People in the neighborhood know Hailemedhin by the name Tade (a shortened version of Tadlo). According to some in the neighborhood Hailemedhin is a timid man of few words, who rarely mingles with people in the community. One of his neighbors described him as a quiet bachelor who does not interact with people.

"I learnt about his real name from the media," Mekdes, a waitress working in Tekle Grocery, where Hailemedhin sometimes dine, told The Reporter. Tekle Grocery is a modest bistro that caters to customers that mostly reside in the condominium building. The eatery is on the ground floor and can be considered as a place that would not be frequented by pilots, who usually prefer to wine and dine in upscale establishments.

"He has been our customer for more than four years. For breakfast he eats scrambled eggsm, or scrambled eggs with meat "enkulal besiga". I have known him for four years. He is very peaceful and quiet. He always comes alone. He greets us and orders whatever he wants. He then pays and leaves," Mekdes said. "I never saw him taking alcoholic drinks or smoking cigarettes. He is a gentleman. But he is always quiet and alone".

Gossaye, a young waiter who has worked in the Tekle grocery for three years, frequently served Hailemedhin. What makes Gossaye different from the other waiters at Tekle is that he frequently delivered food to the young pilot's house. Gossaye describes Hailemedhin as a guy who has always been calm and lonely. "On his day off he usually stays at home watching a movie. He calls me and orders food like minced beef (kitfo) or tibs and soft drinks. I take the order to his home. He is a nice person," Gossaye said. "He is always quiet and alone. I never saw anyone at his home. I never saw a friend or family member with him."

Hailemedhin used to give Gossaye decent tips. "If he left without settling a bill he would call me as soon as he got back and tell me to collect the payment. Of course, with a decent tip," the young waiter told The Reporter.

On Friday he took a local wine, Gouder, and two alcohol free Maltas from the grocery and settled the payment in the late afternoon hours of Sunday [the eve of the hijacking] before his flight to Rome.

Hailemedhin is not on Facebook or Twitter. However, right after his name was revealed to the media four Facebook accounts were created, and so far three of them have more than a thousand likes. Still, he appears to use the internet for another purpose.

Meseret is the owner of an internet center near Hailemedhin's house. Meseret opened Mesi Internet Center seven months ago, and since then Hailemedhin has been a frequent visitor. "He is a good customer. If it is his day off he comes and spends hours watching a movie. I think it is a comedy series, as he laughs while watching," Meseret told The Reporter. One may speculate that he could be a fan of CBS's hit The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother. Be it as it may, Hailemedhin enjoys comedy series.

According to her, Hailemedhin is a very quiet person who does not keep company. "He always comes alone. He greets me and asks for a headphone set. That is it. Then for at least two hours he watches a movie. He greets some people, but I have not seen him have a conversation with anyone." He usually takes the same seat by the side of the small business center, with his back to the window. He uses the same computer. Anyone from the outside can see what he is watching. "So I do not think he is involved in any political activity." The last time Meseret saw him was on Saturday, a day before the hijacking. "He came to us wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts as usual. He greeted me and asked how my business was going." That was her last conversation with him. "He is a calm and nice person. I wonder what triggered him to do this tragic act."

One of the guards at the gate of the condominium told The Reporter that Hailemedhin had lived there for five years. "He is a peaceful guy. It is hard for me to think why he has done this." According to the guard, Hailemedhin was at his home on Sunday. "I saw him on Sunday afternoon. As usual he was alone and was casually dressed. He greeted me and went to a mini market out side of the condo compound, bought some stuff and went back to his home. There was nothing unusual about him," he said.

One of the people in the neighborhood who knows the young co pilot is Ashenafi Bekele, a teenage shoeshine boy, who works in front of Sami Building. Ashenafi, a medium height cheerful boy, usually cleans Hailemedhin's shoes. "I charge three to six birr to clean a shoe based on the shoe polish I use. But Hailemedhin pays me five to ten birr. He was very kind to me," Ashenafi told The Reporter.

Why take the risk?

When asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up? Almost every urban child in Ethiopia would either say a pilot or a doctor. Gazing up to the sky and seeing a plane fly by, children wish that they would one day fly a plane. The sights from the air - sunrise at 33,000 feet is something people can never get tired of seeing. Becoming a commercial pilot is considered by many as a prestigious line of work. The fat paycheck, the travel experience and other benefits are some of the reasons that make the profession desirable. And in Ethiopia a pilot is coalesced with a fancy lifestyle. Being trusted to work on a state-of-the-art multi-million dollar aircraft like Boeing's Dreamliners or an Air Bus A380 is a job dreamed by many. So the million-dollar-question is why did first officer Hailemedhin, who recently bought a Toyota Corolla Executive for 420,000 birr, decided to hijack a plane?

The intention of the hijacking is still unknown. However, Hailemedhin said he is threatened in his home country and requested to the air traffic controller that he needs assurance that he would not be handed over to the Ethiopian government. Redwan Hussien, minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office, told a press conference on Monday that Hailemedhin had the chance to go anywhere in the world. "If he wanted to go abroad he could have done so. He had several valid visas, including the European Shengen visa. He could have gone to other airlines with all his dignity."

Speaking of a prosecution, Redwan said there is no criminal issue so there is no reason why he should be prosecuted. People now ask about his mental health status, especially following what was posted on Facebook by his sister, who claims that her brother was paranoid. Tnsae Abera, Hailemedhin's youngest sister, wrote on her Facebook timeline in Amharic that her brother has always been a very caring, humane and intellectual person. According to her, he used to be a sociable member of the extended family, who loved working for Ethiopian Airlines and his own country. However, she says, recently he started to show behavioral changes.

"Recently Hailemedhin stopped contact and interacting with his family and relatives. He preferred to be left alone and spoke little. His seemed to be having an unhappy life. When we asked what happened to him, we learnt that he believes he has enemies who want to attack him. He believes his phone has been tapped. He also does not open his laptop without covering his webcam. He also installed a camera in his room, fearing that "they" would search it when he was away. In general, he has been suffering from a massive depression and stress," the 23-year-old sister wrote on her Facebook timeline.

Asked about his mental health status, Redwan said he was healthy as long as the airline was concerned.

There are ongoing debates about the occupation's impact on one's long term health. Having continuously changing body clock and regular jet lag (long haul pilots) whilst spending a lot of time at a pressure altitude of 8000 ft can be very fatiguing.

Some of the health hazards related with becoming a pilot include solar radiation, dehydration, ozone poisoning, pressure changes, sleep problems, exposure to huge stress and alcohol problems.

According to a study conducted by Gary C. Butler, Ph.D., and Joyce S. Nicholas, Ph.D., chronic effects of sleep loss including circadian disruption may also include immunologic and endocrine effects. That is, the wide range of body functions controlled by the internal biological clock includes body temperature, digestion, physical and mental performance, and endocrine and immune functions.

Executives of the airline preferred to remain quite. A senior official told The Reporter that Hailemedhin was a qualified pilot. The official said the pilots undergo regular medical check ups every six months, adding that Hailemedhin was fit to fly. "The airline has 8000 employees and this is a single incident. And it is not fair to judge the whole staff or company based on a single incident," the official said. Ethiopian currently has 650 pilots, out of which 100 are foreign nationals.

An uncle of Hailemedhin, Alemu Asmamaw, told The Associated Press his nephew was in emotional distress over the past month following the sudden death of "a very close" uncle.

The pilot used to call family members before his international trips, but had since stopped doing so and appeared to distance himself from his relatives, Alemu said.

"I fear that the death of his uncle...has put a strain on his life," he said. He named the deceased uncle as Emiru Seyoum, and said he taught at Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University. He did not say how Hailemedhin's uncle died.

However this view is not shared by Endalamaw. According to him, the uncle died because of a cardiac condition. "He is been getting treatment at Addis Cardiac Hospital. The incident happened while he was in a taxi. His house is located around Bole in the apartments behind Hiber Restaurant. On that day he walked to Dembel area and took a taxi after that. Around Gibi Gabriel church he passed away while he was in a taxi," Endalamaw told The Reporter. He said that all the passengers were investigated. "After looking at his body there was no form of strangling or any physical sign that makes it look like a homicide. There were talks that have been going on in town that his death was a mystery," he said. For Endalamaw, who is a medical doctor, this is just a conspiracy theory. "We believe it is a natural death. He had high blood pressure and also cardiac problems."

Regarding the youngest sister's post on Facebook, Endalamaw said that she wrote it without consulting the family. "But after she posted it we started to look back at things and it was all true," Endalamaw said. According to the older brother, Hailemedhin was suspicious of his environment and felt that people were following him. "He also tried to go after the people who followed him," he said. "Tnsae and Hiwot were very close to him and they met everyday. What she said is true but it does not mean it is cause and effect.

This and our uncle's death might not be the reason for my brother's actions. People should not conclude that. In medicine and law there is a concept called aggravating circumstances. These reasons might be aggravating reasons. But a psychiatrist has to say that. It is not me, a journalist or someone else who can speculate and decide. They are out of their professional boundary. It is not good for him and everyone in the family," Endalamaw told The Reporter.

With all things hanging a Swiss court has ordered Hailemedhin to be held in custody pending further investigation and appointed him a defense counsel. Swiss federal prosecutors said in a statement on Thursday that investigators are trying to get "a complete picture of the events during the plane hijacking", but didn't provide further details.

Ed.'s Note: Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter has contributed to this story.

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