'I am not planning to heal': A crash leaves suspended grief

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GITHUNGURI, Kenya (AP) — The Rev. George Kageche Mukua was coming home. The Catholic priest had last seen his Kenyan family a year ago, when he boarded a plane for Europe.

His return ended in a thunderous impact in a rural field as Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 faltered shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa and crashed. It struck so hard that the plane appeared to slip right into the ground.

Mukua was one of 32 Kenyans killed, a numbingly high toll on a flight carrying people from 35 countries. No nation lost more.

Like many families now grieving, Mukua’s relatives find themselves at a loss in more ways than one. They say they have heard almost nothing from authorities.

They and others around the world are in a state of suspended grief.

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Funeral arrangements for the 40-year-old priest are on hold, Mukua’s sister, Goreti Kimani, told The Associated Press.

“There has been no family outreach by any agency involved in counselling,” she said, making it even harder for the family to cope.

Unlike neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya’s government has not ordered any flags to fly at half-staff or declared a national day of mourning. Apart from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s message of condolences to relatives, there has been no government initiative to pay tribute to the dead.

Public shock and sadness soon faded away. With unnatural deaths frequently making headlines in Kenya, from extremist attacks to ghastly road crashes to natural disasters, some people seem to have become immune to mass deaths and are not moved.

While waiting for closure, Mukua’s family fills the time talking longingly of a man who was the peacemaker amid the often-fractious relationships that plague polygamous homes like theirs.

“Father did not know boundaries,” Kimani said. “We are losing a friend, you know, a person who is not bothered about barriers. He will be reaching out to you, and he was our symbol of unity.”

His loss is especially painful as two other brothers were killed in road crashes in the last three years.

“Personally, I am not planning to heal,” Kimani said with a deep sigh, resigned. “I am just planning to move on.”

But she couldn’t help but ask: “There are so many other flights … Why that one?”

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Mukua had been returning home for his annual leave. He was posted to Rome for missionary work last year, much to his family’s delight. Like many Kenyans with a loved one abroad, they had hoped the foreign posting would bring opportunities for siblings and other relatives.

Even before Europe, Mukua had been one for journeys.

While the family remained in their village of tea farms not far outside Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, he left for South Africa and spent 10 years training to become a priest. He returned home and was ordained.

He was hardly a year and few months into the priesthood, said the Rev. Father Michael Wa Mugi, who worked with Mukua in his hometown of Githunguri.

“We really loved his kind words during the homilies,” Wa Mugi said of his friend. “Father was good, down-to-earth humble, a priest who welcomed all.”

George Mukua, a cousin, said he was having problems accepting his death. When a relative called this week asking if he had the latest news about the priest, his hopes quickly rose that he had been found alive.

“I kept on expecting he would tell me he had been found in a hotel or something,” George Mukua said.

Instead, the wait continues for the family, and for others who have made the journey to the crash site in Ethiopia or stayed home in mourning.

No one seems to know how long it will take to identify whatever is found of the victims’ remains.

On Friday, families and others said the work had finally begun. Some swiped their mouths and handed over DNA for the forensic work that many hope will be the key to end their wait.

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