In Ethiopia, an ancient land of pilgrimage, people are making a grim, new journey of grief.
One by one, friends and families of the 157 people killed on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 came to the crash site Wednesday with quiet offerings to the dead.
Photographs. Heartfelt notes. Bouquets.
They were placed under a makeshift, bright green floral arch, in striking contrast to the arid land. White roses were plucked from a bucket and placed in a slender frame that wavered in the wind.
Some of the relatives staggered with sorrow.
One man was supported by others as he cried out. They sought footing on the freshly churned and blackened landscape.
Others stood in silence: the security forces in camouflage blue, the searchers in face masks, the diplomats in polished shoes.
“We owe it to the families to understand what happened,” said British Ambassador Alastair McPhail, who represented nine of his countrymen among the victims.
The dead came from 35 countries. Around the world, relatives numb with grief began a bewildering journey to the site outside Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Farmers, some with their cattle, witnessed the plane going down. When they hurried to the smoking ground, they found little there.
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A pilot, Solomon Gizaw, was among the first to see the crash site from above. He said it appeared as though the plane had slipped right into the earth.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said the same, noting that the aircraft was “totally sunken under the ground.”
Yellow tape rings the scene. Onlookers watch at the edge, while close relatives have the heartbreaking right to go inside. Some carry armfuls of flowers.
“We want to go there often and make offerings,” said Dawit Gebremichael, who lost his sister.
A few have visited the site with little fanfare. As the world first learned about the crash on Sunday, Ethiopia’s young new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed went to bear witness and grieve.
Ethiopia is lined with footpaths to ancient churches and other places of reflection. Now it is Africa’s aviation hub, with jet contrails streaking across the sky.
The public pilgrimage to the crash site began with Tewolde. He stood alone in the gaping crater, holding a piece of wreckage, in an image that swiftly made its way around the world.
Investigators have now arrived in a multinational inquiry into the crash.
New arrivals Wednesday included Indonesia’s recently appointed ambassador, who told reporters he had arrived in the country only a day earlier. He mourned one of his countrymen.
Chinese aviation experts at the site paused and made a modest offering to the victims: incense, fruit and pieces of Ethiopian bread known as injera.
They bowed in unison and resumed their work.