LIBREVILLE, Gabon, February 10 – Zambia’s footballers, in a simple but deeply moving ceremony here Thursday, honoured their fallen compatriots who perished in the 1993 air crash off the coast of Gabon.
Shortly after arriving in Libreville, where they take on Ivory Coast in Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final, the Copper Bullets made their way to the spot where 500 metres offshore a Zambian Air Force flight ditched into the sea, wiping out the national squad.
The plane was en route to a 1994 World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar and crashed.
All 30 people, 25 passengers and five crew, on board died.
An official inquiry found that pilot fatigue and an instrument error had contributed to the disaster which happened shortly after the plane refuelled in Libreville.
Only former African Footballer of the Year Kalusha Bwalya avoided one of the great African football tragedies because he was based in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven and travelled directly to Dakar from Europe.
Bwalya, now president of the Zambian Football Federation, was among the group paying an emotional homage to the dead on a cloudy late afternoon.
Against the gentle sound of the Atlantic waves lapping against the beach he said, with tears in his eyes: “It is no coincedence that we are here today, we have worked hard as a team.
“However I am convinced that our dearly departed brothers who lost their lives here 19 years ago have lent us a helping hand.
“In 1993 the Copper Bullets came here to fulfil a promise, they did not succeed, but instead gave up their lives for a gallant cause.
“Their dream to bring glory to our country, mother Zambia, is the same cause that brings us here today, the only difference is that we are alive and our former teammates are no longer here.
“It is for this reason that I say here today on behalf of all of us involved in Zambian football that their dreams are our dreams, they are smiling down on heaven as we take part in this tournament in Gabon.
“I pray that their souls may forever rest in peace and that God will give us the strength and the courage to fulfil our dreams…. and theirs.”
Bwalya, the players, and coach Herve Renard, had walked along the beach near the airport, singing a Zambian funeral hymn, before coming to a stop at the nearest point on land to the crash.
They then laid ‘flowers of the sea’, one for each person killed, at the water’s edge.
As the first flower was taken by a wave a thunder clap sounded overhead, and in the far horizon a ray of sunshine appeared in a break in the clouds.
Zambia captain Christopher Katongo then led the silent group of mourners in prayer.
A sign of how important this ceremony was to the 2012 squad was evidenced by the fact that not one player had the habitual set of headphones so beloved of football stars dangling around his ears, not one carried an ipod or iphone, each was simply intent on honouring the dead.
Also attending the ceremony was a local man who saw the plane crash, and helped recover parts of wreckage from the disaster.
Zambian Sports minister Chishimba Kambwili was also on hand to pay his respects.
He told the gathering: “Today brings memories, memories of 19 years ago when in the quest to bring glory to Zambia we lost gallant men and women, gallant men on that fateful day.
“Our coming to Gabon today I think by and large is by design. I think God made it this way so we can come and pay back by winning the Africa Cup to our fallen heroes.
“To you my fallen colleagues I want to say that you may be gone, but you will never be forgotten, you can see that you died here 19 years ago, but we’ve come here 19 years after to come and pay tribute and to say thank you for everthing that you did for mother Zambia.”
Before making their return to the team hotel to prepare for Sunday’s clash Bwalya, looking up to the stormy skies, said: “I’m sure the boys up there will be watching on Sunday.”