THE devastated sister of an Edinburgh woman killed by a suicide bomber while working in Afghanistan has told how she died “doing something she loved”.
Jeni Ayris died alongside 11 fellow aviation workers on Tuesday after a lone female suicide bomber struck the minibus in which they were travelling near Kabul Airport.
The attack came as she was preparing to leave the worn-torn country to return home to Edinburgh this weekend.
Tributes have flooded in to Ms Ayris, 47, who was a well-known figure in Tollcross where she once ran South African cafe and deli Ndebele, which was described as the “hub” of the community. Hundreds of people posted tributes, memories and photographs on a Facebook page dedicated to Ms Ayris after news of her death broke.
Speaking to the Evening News, her sister Pat said: “Jeni was my best friend.
“The last time I saw Jeni was on a holiday in Paris back in April, when it came to an end she went back to Afghanistan.
“I was supposed to see her this weekend, as she was due to come home on Saturday. She died just one day before her handover was due to take place.”
Ms Ayris, who was brought up in Cape Town, moved to Edinburgh 17 years ago and had British citizenship. She had been working in Afghanistan for just over a year, on a three-month-on one-month-off basis, as a customer relations manager for aviation firm Air Charter Services.
The firm organises private flights for charities and NGOs into and out of the country.
Islamic militan group Hezb-e-Islami has claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said it was retaliation for a controversial American anti-Islam film, which has led to demonstrations in many Muslim countries.
Despite reports that the convoy had been targeted, Pat, who is Ms Ayris’ only immediate family, said it had been confirmed the attack was random.
“A suicide bomber in a white van went straight in to the vehicle in which they were travelling. Jeni and the others had been in the first vehicle in a convoy of three,” she said.
Ms Ayris, who spent her last break in Miami, Florida, lived in Steels Place in Morningside.
Pat, an NHS co-ordinator from Rosewell, said: “She died doing something that she loved. Jeni loved lived life to the full, she lived each day as if it were her last. I don’t think she ever grew up.
“She was an avid sailor and that was her main passion in life, she used to sail at South Queensferry and at Port Edgar.
“She also loved cooking a threw the most amazing parties – they were quite renowned. She was a child at heart and if she could do anything silly she would do it – and she would have everyone else doing it too.”
Ms Ayris left her native South Africa to go travelling and eventually settled in the Capital.
She went on to open her popular South African cafe Ndebele on Leven Street in 1997. It provided South African favourites and once catered for Nelson Mandela during a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. It also proved a popular spot for actors such as Alan Cumming and Sheila Hancock during stints at the nearby King’s Theatre.
In 1997, 1100 people signed a successful petition to keep the cafe open amid a planning wrangle.
Ms Ayris later hit the headlines when she appeared in the BBC’s Diet Trials programme that followed slimmers from around the country.
And she was back in the news when the cafe finally closed in 2008 when she could not find a buyer.
Doug Bell, owner of the nearby Lupe Pintos Mexican Deli, said: “This is such sad news. Jeni was part of the business community and she was well known. I always used to see her writing quirky things across the deli black board.”
Barryjohn Stewart, who became friends with Jeni after meeting her at Ndebele, said: “Jeni was such a warm, generous, bright soul and she really did make an impact in Tollcross.
“The cafe really became the hub of the community – it was bright and vibrant and there were always lots of people there.
“Jeni was a very significant person to everybody who worked with her and all of her friends. She was generous and selfless.”
Business consultant Johan Venter, who also became friends with Ms Ayris after she opened Ndebele, added: “I’m just shocked because Jeni visited a few months ago before she went on her last mission.
“She was quite excited about this venture and I think she was quite happy, it suited her ideally to do that kind of work.
“The news is very sad, she was such a lovely person.”
In a statement, her friends and family described her as “a warm, kind and generous person with an everyday objective of helping everyone she met”.
“She had a positive boundless energy which rubbed off on everyone, making her loss all the more hurtful,” they said.
“Jeni leaves behind a sister who is her only family, as well as a huge number of friends across Scotland and the world – who are all absolutely devastated by her tragic death.”
The statement said she loved living in the UK and was “very passionate” about her life in Scotland.
It added: “Jeni was highly respected and valued in her job as a manager in the aviation sector, where she was responsible for the safe air travel of NGOs throughout Afghanistan.
“Her contribution was her practical way of helping Afghanistan move forward.”