10 Years after Panama Airline Bomb, Jews are Pained by Lack of Suspects
Sitting in her impeccably furnished living room on the 20th floor of one of this city’s modern high-rises, Yvonne Attie’s petite frame and dignified posture exude calmness and fortitude. But as she approaches the 10th anniversary of the day a bomb on a local commuter flight killed her husband, she finds it impossible to keep tears from her eyes. She speaks of how her five children have been left without a father. “The way we live as Jews, the father is the pillar of the house, and that was how we liked it,” she says. “My husband was an outstanding person, but it was only through his death that we could really appreciate it. He left all his kids filled with such a love that none of them had any complaints.”
Emmanuel Attie was among the 21 people on board an Alas Chiricanas flight on July 19, 1994, headed to Panama City from the Caribbean port of Colon, where Emmanuel ran the family’s men’s fashion wholesale business. About five minutes into the flight, a passenger who called himself Lya Jamal detonated a pound of explosives, destroying the plane and killing all its passengers, including 12 Jews. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, and opinion is divided over whether it was the work of Arab terrorists or drug lords from neighboring Colombia. Yvonne Attie was at the airport waiting to pick up her husband that day; she was the only relative of a victim at the airport when word of the disaster came in. Emmanuel, 61, had been coming home early that day to help her plan a family event.
The relatives’ grief is compounded by the fact that the bombing remains unsolved. Unlike the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people the day before the Alas Chiricanas bombing and widely is believed to be the work of Hezbollah terrorists working under Iranian sponsorship, there are no known terrorist suspects in the Panama airline bombing. “We all want this to be resolved because you must put closure to this, but I also understand this closure is not in my hands,” Attie says. The loss took a heavy emotional toll on Attie and her children, particularly the youngest daughter, then 9. Attie says support from the country’s 8,000-strong Jewish community helped pull her through the difficult time and come to grips with her loss.
Ten of those that died, including Emmanuel Attie, were among the country’s 7,000 Sephardi Jews. Sephardim in Panama generally adhere to Orthodox customs and have managed to keep up observance of traditions that many in other Latin America Jewish communities have let fall by the wayside. Attie reserves special praise for the country’s long-time chief rabbi, Zion Levy, who she says “sometimes has been like a father” to her children. Today, Attie’s youngest daughter is getting ready for her final year of college in the United States. Her only son has taken the reins of the family business, which now includes women’s fashion as well. Attie keeps pictures of her husband around the house. In one, they appear wrapped in ski parkas and wool hats in Colorado, a far cry from the steamy tropical heat of Panama City. The memories of that bring a smile to her lips, even as her eyes fill with tears. Attie still is haunted by the idea that she may have taken an earlier flight with Lya Jamal when she went to visit her husband’s business two weeks before the bombing.
She recalls a man on the flight matching the description of the later bomber. Investigators said the bomber flew the route on several occasions in the weeks before the attack. What Attie remembers most is that her impression of him was not as a potential killer but someone whose shirt was wrinkled. Like many Latin Americans, Panamanians are sticklers for freshly-pressed clothes. Attie’s brother-in-law, Mayer Attie, suffered a double loss. Orphaned at a young age in Israel, he had convinced Emmanuel Attie to move to Panama in the early 1960’s, and helped introduce him to his future wife. When the plane exploded, Mayer Attie lost not only his brother but his son Albert, 24, by all accounts a business prodigy who had earned an MBA from the Wharton business school at age 21.
“Albert was a partner in our family business. He was a part of this organization. He was going to be my right hand in the business,” Mayer Attie recalled recently in his office at the family’s textile assembly plant. “In my life I have a wound that will never heal, neither for myself nor for my wife, because I loved him so much.” Albert and Emmanuel Attie are buried next to each other at a small Jewish cemetery off a main thoroughfare, their graves the first in a row of eight graves of victims from the bombing. Though he is gone, Emmanuel Attie’s presence in his family remains, frequently and affectionately invoked in conversation. “On every happy occasion we mention him,” Yvonne Attie says. “We always say, ‘Father would have liked this.’ “