Yesterday, Zambians officially paid tribute to their entire national team that perished on April 27th 1993 in a bizarre plane crash that occurred shortly after take off in Libreville Gabon.
Kalusha Bwalya was the national team captain and the only player that survived. He did because he was not on the plane that crashed near Gabon.
Yesterday, he joined the commemorations at the incomplete national stadium where the players were buried to remember the dead.
Just so we remember, this is how Kalusha says he first heard about the crash 20 years ago.
“I was going out for a run,” Kalusha Bwalya says. “It was around noon. I was all dressed for running. The phone rang. Since I was playing in Holland, the plan was for me to fly down to Senegal the next day from Amsterdam to join the national team. The caller was the accountant from our football association in Lusaka. This was different, since usually the secretary from the association calls me, but I figured the call had to do with my trip.
“The accountant sounded strange, though. He asked, ‘How are you, Kalusha?’ I said I was fine. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked. I said I was fine. ‘Nothing wrong?’ Nothing. He kept going along like this, and I didn’t know what was happening. He couldn’t tell me the bad news. Finally, he said I would have to delay my trip. ‘Why is that?’ I asked. He said the boys on the team didn’t arrive in the Ivory Coast, where they were supposed to spend last night. ‘Didn’t arrive?’ I asked. ‘How is that possible?’ He said there was something with the plane. ‘Something with the plane?’ I asked. He said they had confirmed reports that the plane had crashed and everyone was dead”
How do you react when you learn you have just lost 18 of your football mates in an air crash where you were supposed to also be on the plane?
Kalusha was shocked of course. So was Africa and the rest of the world. The Zambian team that had good prospects of qualifying for the 1994 world cup in the USA struggled after that in continental competitions. Their triumph in Gabon during the last nations cup was a fitting tribute to the 30 people who died following the crash. For some strange reason, they also won the Nation’s cup in the country where “the boys” as Kalusha Bwalya calls them, died.
Triumph at Last
It took the Zambian football team 19 years to recover from the shock of losing an entire football team. They finally won the African nations cup last year in Gabon against pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast. They celebrated their win in the way they do it best only in Africa-in song and dance. The Gabonese supported the Zambians during that historic finals and when they won, some of the bitterness between the two countries dissipated.
Some Zambians somehow blamed the Gabonese for the plane crash which occurred shortly after the plane refuelled in Libreville en route to a world cup qualifying match against Senegal in Dakar. At one point, Zambia actually blamed the Gabonese military for mistakenly shooting the plane down.
Twenty years later, some of the widows of the players are themselves dead, most from the heartbreak and hardship they suffered after their bread winning husbands died in the crash
Kalusha Bwalya, Zambians greatest football player and the only person who did not die in the crash because he was not in the plane is today the president of the country’s football federation. Yesterday, he also paid tribute to his dead mates.
20 years on, the real cause of the crash has never been established. The families of the deceased still want answers.
Unlike other country’s, Africa does not take care of its stars, so it is not surprising they also ignore the dead. There is still no explanation as to why a full report into the real cause of the crash has never been released. Relatives of the dead players have no idea why their burial ground is still incomplete. Zambian Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili did not even border to attend yesterdays’ commemorative activities in the Independence stadium in Lusaka. The relatives of the dead players received inadequate compensation from the state in 2002, nine years after the tragedy.