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Triumph on Sacred Ground
Leigh Montville
October 18, 1993
After the Zambian soccer team perished in a plane crash, a new team rose to bring hope to a troubled nation
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October 18, 1993

Triumph On Sacred Ground

After the Zambian soccer team perished in a plane crash, a new team rose to bring hope to a troubled nation

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The route to Dakar was a series of hops determined by the need to refuel. The first hop went to Brazzaville, in Congo, the second to Libreville, on the coast of Gabon. The third hop was scheduled to go to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, where the team would spend the night before a final hop to Dakar the next day. After the initial eight-hour delay, the trip proceeded.

What happened next is confusing. Some radio reports said that the 44-year-old pilot, Capt. Fenton Mike Mhone, wanted technicians to check a mechanical problem in Brazzaville. The BBC reported that a technician worked on the plane in Libreville. And there are other accounts that Mhone had no complaints at all. Whatever, the plane took off and reached a height of 6,000 feet; radio contact ceased a minute after departure. The takeoff path went out over the ocean and the pilot began to case the plane into its flight pattern toward Abidjan. Witnesses said they saw an explosion. Or was it two explosions? One witness said she saw a beam of light shoot through the air, followed by two explosions. A beam of light? The plane dropped into the ocean.

"It was confusing then, and it is contusing now," says Mungonge, who went to Libreville after the crash. "The fuselage landed 10 kilometers off the coast, where the mud at the bottom of the sea is very thick. The fuselage still is there. There was no black box because this was a military aircraft, and Gabon has refused to release the tapes of conversations back to the tower. It has become an incident between the governments. What happened? You think that something went wrong with the plane, but we may never know.

"Every day there seem to be new rumors," says Mungonge. "One is that the plane was shot down by a missile from a former French base by a Gabonese national guard unit in training. That would explain the beam of light. This was a military plane, remember, that had arrived late and maybe wasn't expected. Another rumor is that there was a bomb on the plane. Another, and this one is everywhere, is that the team is still alive. That they are being held captive in Gabon, that the bodies that were found really were the bodies of political prisoners in Gabon. I don't believe this at all, but that doesn't mean people don't talk about it."

News of the disaster was held off Zambian television for more than 12 hours while officials tried to make sure that a crash had really occurred. When the first reports started to surface on other networks, the government released what it knew at quarter past one in the afternoon. The entire country was dropped into grief. Liwewe, the broadcaster, cried for 20 minutes on the air, shouting the name of each player, uncontrollable in his misery. The grim news was a flashbulb that froze a moment forever.

"I was shopping, and this woman came up to me on the street," Peggy Wilma Mwape, wife of Michael Mwape, the late chairman of the Football Association of Zambia, says. "She said, 'Peggy, did your husband go with the team to Senegal?' I said that he left yesterday. 'Are you sure that he went?' she said. I said I was sure. She didn't say anything else but asked if she could give me a ride home. She never told me, just gave me a ride home—she was afraid that I would hear the news on the radio if I drove myself—and she dropped me off. It was my daughter who told me. She said when I came in, 'Daddy's gone.' "

"I was buying cement building blocks for our new house on that sad Wednesday," Doreen Mankinka, whose husband, Debby, was a starting midfielder, says. "I was tired and went into a store for a drink with my brother. The news was on the radio. We looked at each other. We thought it was some kind of lie. We went home and listened to the radio at home, and it was not a lie. From then on, I was just unconscious. I remember thinking, How will I ever wake up again in the morning?"

Her husband was 26 years old. She is the mother of two daughters, five and three years old. Her son, Davy John, was one month old when his father died. The 30 men on the plane were fathers to 90 children.

There was never much doubt that another team would be formed to play out the World Cup qualifying schedule. There was never really an argument against continuing. The idea that a new team should be built seemed as natural as the idea that the old team—everyone on the plane—should be buried together in the open land beside the stadium. The second round of World Cup qualifying would be a three-team round-robin, home and home against Morocco and Senegal, the winner qualifying to play in the U.S. The first Zambia-Senegal game, naturally, was rescheduled. The team was given time to rebuild.

"We have to go on," Kalusha told reporters as he arrived for the memorial service and funeral. "I don't know whether we will be able to build another team, but we must not give up."

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