A year after bomber's release, Lockerbie tries to move on

19th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

The quiet Scottish town of Lockerbie is determined to play down Friday's one-year anniversary of the freeing of the Libyan man convicted of blowing up an airliner in its skies.

The Scottish government released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi from jail on compassionate grounds on August 20, 2009, allowing him to return to Libya to die from terminal prostate cancer.

A year on, Megrahi is still alive, a fact fuelling anger in the United States -- where most of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 were from -- at Scotland's decision to free him.

On December 21, 1988, Sherwood Crescent in Lockerbie was nearly wiped out when the wings of the jumbo jet fell from the sky and burst into a fireball.

Now rabbits nibble at the grass covering what was once a huge crater.

Eleven of the street's residents died, along with 259 passengers and crew on the jet travelling from London to New York when it was blown up.

Photographs of the aftermath show the charred shells of homes and cars, though not the bodies which lay in the gardens.

Sherwood Crescent was rebuilt and is now, again, a quiet street of modest brick homes with neat gardens where lilies and roses bloom.

Across Lockerbie, people want to move on -- but that does not mean forgetting what happened 22 years ago.

One man who, like many in the town, was wary of giving his name said Megrahi should have ended his life behind bars in Scotland.

"I think he should have died here and his body should have been flown back after -- there's a lot of people whose loved ones aren't coming back," he said.

Others talked of alternative punishments which the Libyan should have faced rather than being sent home. Experts now say he could survive for several years thanks to new forms of cancer treatment.

When Scotland's Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill freed Megrahi, he said it was likely he only had three months to live.

MacAskill declined AFP's request for an interview but the Scottish government said medical experts told it at the time that the three-month prognosis was "reasonable".

"As was said at the time of his release, he may live longer or he may die sooner, but what is undeniable is that he is terminally ill," a statement said.

The controversy over Megrahi's early release will be aired again in the United States, with the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee set to hold a hearing in the coming weeks.

But the lawmaker who represents Lockerbie in the Scottish Parliament, Elaine Murray, said most people in the town want to forget about the furore.

"People in Lockerbie are still affected by the tragedy but like most communities which are affected by disaster, people move on and do their best to put it behind them," said Murray, of the centre-left Labour Party.

"Mostly residents of Lockerbie want to move on and would prefer that the town was known for more than where Pan Am 103 came down."

For others, though, there are more questions to be answered before this can happen.

Father Patrick Keegans was the town's priest at the time of the bombing and lived in the only house on Sherwood Crescent not gutted by the fireball.

Despite his graphic memories, he believes there is "severe doubt" about the safety of Megrahi's conviction in 2001 by Scottish judges in a special court in the Netherlands.

"My strongest memory was the crash happening -- the noise of the jet engine seeming to hit the top of my roof, the sound of the explosion," Keegans, 64, recalled.

"I couldn't believe what I was looking at when I opened the front door. The whole street was just burning."

Keegans, now on the committee of a campaign group called Justice For Megrahi, said people's memories of the attack would not be laid to rest until there was a full review of the case.

"There's never, never going to be any peace in people's minds and hearts until this whole thing is resolved," he said.

"As I said at the time, this won't stand up to any scrutiny and that's proving to be the case. Constantly Lockerbie is coming up -- you would think this would have gone away after 20 years.

"Until the full truth is known, people can't lay this to rest because the truth allows us to deal with things and then reconstruct our lives".

Just outside Lockerbie, overlooked by rolling hills and forests, is a memorial garden with a large stone listing the names of all those who died and a centre with a book of remembrance which draws visitors from around the world.

Many entries in the book express disbelief at the death of so many innocent people in what remains Britain's worst attack of its kind.

But other comments remember the victims of what happened in Lockerbie in 1988 and look to the future. "We can stop hate". "Let them rest".

© 2010 AFP

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