“Keith, wake up!”
I opened my eyes and looked around in a daze. My partner broke the news to me: a Malaysia Airlines plane en-route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had been downed in eastern Ukraine, presumably by a missile. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was this a bad dream? I reached out for my phone and checked the news. There it was and I still couldn’t believe it. I checked every news source I could think of and they all had it as their breaking story. My first thought was “not again! Another Malaysia Airlines incident in just a few months!” I was numbed by the news. Shocked. It was too horrific for words. The initial shock quickly made way for a great sadness, the intensity of which I’d not felt in a long time. I grew up with Malaysia Airlines – my Dad was one of their first crew when the airline was formed in the 1960’s – and being a Dutch national, this incident hit home unlike any other.
My partner and I were enjoying our holiday on Pulau Perhentian Kecil, a small island on the east coast of Malaysia, when it happened. I couldn’t help but think of all the people on the plane who were on the way to their holiday destinations. My partner and I flew that exact same route only a week before. Similar to the route taken by MH17, we also flew from Amsterdam across Ukraine and past Donetsk to Kuala Lumpur. We later met a Dutch family at the hotel who were visibly upset. They’d arrived in Malaysia on MH17 just two days before. They told us of the family of their son’s classmate; the parents and their two children (one of whom was the classmate) were on the flight that was downed. They’d left one child behind in Holland, their teenage daughter who’d chosen to spend her summer holiday with friends. It was heart-breaking.
WHY? All those innocent people whose lives were lost and FOR WHAT? The questions swarmed around in my mind and grief soon turned to anger. That anger only grew when scenes of thieves and drunks trampling around the crash site were shown on television. It was just sickening.
A week later, my partner and I arrived in Thailand. We made our way to the immigrations counter and found hundreds of Russians in the queue ahead of us. They were on their summer holiday too. I looked around and saw their excited faces, and I could feel the anger welling up inside. I knew it wasn’t their fault – they had nothing to do with the downing of MH17 – but I somehow felt that they were to blame too. If Russia had not annexed Crimea to start with, this probably wouldn’t have happened. “Blame their government, not these people”, my partner said. “But they probably voted for that idiot!”, I retorted. It was silly I know but my emotions were getting the better of me. I took a step back, mentally, and reasoned with myself. The anger soon subsided and in the next few days, we even struck up friendly conversations with various Russians, though the topic was consciously avoided. They knew our nationality but not one word was said about the incident which was fine with me. I certainly didn’t want to ruin my holiday by getting into an emotional discussion.
All in all, we had a wonderful holiday, island-hopping in Malaysia, spending time with my family and friends in Kuala Lumpur and lazing on the beach in Thailand. The time just flew by and soon we were on a plane back to Amsterdam. The captain announced that he would of course not be flying over Ukraine. I guess it was mentioned to reassure the passengers but to me, it only served as a grim reminder. We arrived in Amsterdam twelve hours later and after clearing customs, we made a beeline for the makeshift MH17 memorial at the airport. As soon as I spotted it, I raised my hands to my face and sobbed. Before me, stretched out at least a hundred yards, was a sea of flowers, candles, teddy bears, letters, photos, little flags and other tokens of love. I looked around me and noticed teary-eyed people in respectful silence. They walked along the memorial, stopping to read one of the many letters, to light a candle or to place another bouquet of flowers. The outpouring of sorrow and of love at this memorial was just overwhelming but I was thankful for it. Like many before me, it was a place to which I could channel my emotions, reflect and pay my respects.
To all the families, loved ones, colleagues and friends of the passengers and crew of MH17, my thoughts are with you. I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through but I wish you lots of love and strength.