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At a moment’s notice, they fly out to do a task from hell

  • EthiopianCrash3
They work tirelessly all day under the harsh rays of a blazing sun, the stench of death and destruction around them. They are a team of Jewish heroes who are working around the clock with one mission: the recovery of human bodies.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Mar 14, 2019

They have left their wives and children at a moment’s notice, and travelled to a remote location in a far-off country, where they have virtually no contact with home, or the rest of the world. All this to perform a thankless and heartbreaking task that few can even begin to imagine.

These are the Israeli and South African volunteers of the rescue and recovery organisation ZAKA, whose tireless efforts at the crash site of the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 can be described only as superhuman.

“They’re standing in the heat without any shade the whole day, working on a site which is too terrible to imagine,” says Yaakov Lazarus, logistical head of ZAKA South Africa. “Regardless of what’s thrown at you, this is what you have to do in these situations. You leave your family behind and set off to care for human bodies. That’s what a volunteer does.”

Of the 10-man team deployed by ZAKA, the four South African volunteers are Avi Hack, Netanel Azizollahoff, Josh Green, and Ilan Dubb. Having arrived in the early hours of Monday morning, the group is part of the recovery operation being carried out in the wake of the Boeing 737 Max 8 plummeting to earth only six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa on Saturday morning.

After flying in from Johannesburg, this ill-fated plane spent three hours in the Ethiopian capital and was “despatched with no remark” for Nairobi with 157 passengers and crew (among them two Israelis) on board. For reasons yet to be understood, the plane rose erratically into the air after requesting permission to turn back, and then suddenly lost altitude.

This is the second Boeing 737 Max 8 to crash in the past four months, coming after a Lion Air crash into the sea off the Indonesian capital Jakarta in October last year, in which all 189 people on board were killed.

After reports of the crash were received over the ZAKA International Volunteer messaging platform, ZAKA South Africa was put on standby due to its proximity to the site.

“Late Sunday morning, we were contacted by the chief of the international unit, Mati Goldstein, to ask for assistance,” says Lazarus. “A request was put out on the local ZAKA group, and 10 people volunteered to be deployed.”

On Sunday evening, the team was given the green light by ZAKA International to travel to Addis Ababa. Of the 10 South Africans who put themselves forward, four volunteers were selected, and together with a support team of an additional 12 members on the ground in South Africa, preparations were made. That same night, the team flew to Ethiopia and met with another five volunteers from ZAKA Israel, the shaliach from the Chabad of Ethiopia, and the Israeli consul to Ethiopia.

The situation that greeted them was both chaotic and complicated. According to Israeli media reports, experts from the United States and Ethiopian authorities made considerable effort to locate the plane’s black box information recording system. After they found it, they left what remained at the scene almost entirely at the mercy of bulldozers and onlookers.

Israeli news agency Reshet 13 described a scene of locals looting at the crash site, while any other remnants that hadn’t been removed to a hangar in the capital for examination were pushed aside by earthmovers. According to ZAKA, both the crash scene and the hangar were initially completely off limits to them, and though they have since been granted some access, their movements remain severely limited.

The remains taken to the hangar include the bodies of the Israeli passengers, both of whom have been identified. They are Ma’Aleh Adumim resident Avraham Matzliach, and Shimon Reem from Zichron Yaakov. A deputy director of a security company, 58-year-old Reem was reportedly on the continent for a business trip to Kenya, not unlike 49-year-old Matzliach, a hi-tech businessman, who often made the journey from Tel Aviv to Africa.

According to his relatives, Matzliach had spent a week in South Africa prior to the flight. Both men leave behind wives and children.

Together with ZAKA, the families of both the deceased are pushing desperately to get the remains of their loved ones flown to Israel for burial.

Reem’s family flew to Ethiopia, and have reportedly been barred from accessing the hangar in which all the human remains are being kept. With ZAKA’s mobility also limited by bureaucracy, there is not yet any clear indication when access to the remains will be given. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Security Council, and the Israeli consul in Ethiopia, Ofer Zach, are making efforts to obtain the necessary permits to enable ZAKA volunteers to continue their work.

According to YNet, one of the Israeli volunteers, Elazar Samet, said: “We are not allowed to continue our search in the crater, and there is a mess here with the federal police and the airline. They did not give us permission to continue, and we are trying to persuade the government to allow us to work.”

Samet also criticised the conduct of the local teams at the disaster scene, according to Israel Today. He said: “Unfortunately, we know this work very well, and from what we saw on the ground the local crews are working slowly and inefficiently, and there is a feeling that they are not doing everything right.

“We saw stains of blood and personal belongings scattered around. There are quite a few things that, as far as we’re concerned, are findings that must be collected, and I do not understand how they left it like that on the ground.” 

Despite the obstacles in their way, the ZAKA team continues to scour the site and retrieve whatever remains they can. Although functioning on little sleep, they support one another and persist with their mission. “What they do gives you goose bumps,” says Lazarus. “As difficult as it is, they work through it together. Even the shaliach rabbi’s wife is there, cooking meals for the volunteers at 23:30.”

After Reem and Matzliach were identified, the team assembled beside the crater for the recitation of the memorial prayer, Kel Maleh Rachamim, and the singing of Hatikva amid the carnage.

Lazarus concludes: “These are selfless heroes who are there to look after Jewish bodies. Regardless of what they face, they are dedicated to their work and always display courage, strength and fortitude. They are superhuman.”

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