The Dutch have a reputation for being practical and level-headed, but shock and grief over MH17 run deep, writes Priya de Langen.
In the Netherlands, July 23 was a national day of mourning for the people who lost their lives in flight MH17. Of the 298 victims, 193 were Dutch. National flags across the country flew at half-mast, churches rang their bells and a minute of silence was observed. It was the day the first 40 victims’ bodies arrived in Eindhoven airbase.
Live coverage showed Prime Minister Mark Rutte, King Willem-Alexander, Queen Máxima, members of the Dutch cabinet and dignitaries of nine other nations that have lost citizens paying their respects. The press stood at the outskirts of the airbase looking on at the ceremony in the hot afternoon sun. Members of the public watched from a highway bridge, throwing down white roses as the hearses drove past to Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks in Hilversum. Waiting outside the barracks, friends and family of the victims looked on at the hearses, crying softly.
As solemn an affair as it was, it was also just as surreal — not just for me but for many. Over the past week, since the day MH17 was shot out of the sky in a war-torn area of eastern Ukraine, the visible reaction from many Dutch has been shock, and the word on many lips has been “Why?”. Suzanna Tjoa from Eindhoven said: “My first response to the news was a combination of shock and disbelief. How could this happen, and most importantly, why?”
On the day of the incident, messages in my WhatAapp and Facebook accounts started drifting in from friends and family, asking “Did you hear the news about the plane?” A friend, Prema Kandiah, had been travelling in Europe and was booked to fly on that MH17 flight but she rescheduled. Currently holidaying in Amsterdam, she told me, “I’ve read of people’s ‘close shaves’, and it was surreal experiencing it. I was scheduled to fly back on the same flight and grudgingly paid to re-schedule. Little did I know that that it would turn out to be a life-saving decision. My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of all those onboard that ill-fated flight.”
In a bookshop, I asked an acquaintance about the incident and he shook his head saying, “Yes, it is sad, but I don’t know anyone personally from the flight.” Near us, a Briton who was listening muttered, “Peasants with bloody guns” — referring to the pro-Russian rebels who allegedly caused the atrocity.
Many talk about the tragedy to one another, but not all the time, and not as often as one would think. The Dutch seem reserved and dignified in their mourning; with the exception of the official mourning day, grief, it seems, is a private affair. However, thousands of messages have been left in condolence registries in churches, city halls and government offices across the country; flowers and memorabilia placed at the houses of the victims and at Departure Hall 3 of Schiphol Airport. The online national Netherlands condolence registry has already garnered more than 40,000 signatures.
Rutte, the Dutch King and Queen and a number of government officials met with the victims’ next of kin on Tuesday. In the evening, the King addressed the nation on live television, stating that the relatives’ “sorrow, their feeling of powerlessness and despair has cut through our souls”.
Over the past week, national and international media have been showing disturbing images and videos of the crash site — charred bodies, wreckage from the plane, belongings such as children’s toys and books strewn across the fields. Live coverage of press briefings by the Dutch government and Malaysia Airlines, reports from on-site journalists and updates from the crash site are also being shown every other hour.
Online and print newspapers have been running stories about the victims — where they were from, why there were on the flight, what they meant to their friends and families — giving people a glimpse into their lives, making it all the more poignant. Nos journaal also showed videos of people walking around the wreckage and rummaging through personal belongings, which caused the usually level-headed Dutch government to express anger over the lack of respect.
In a press briefing last week, a visibly upset Rutte stated that he was shocked over the disrespect shown to the victims. Minister for Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans, in his speech to UN Security Council in New York on Tuesday, expressed his anger and disgust at the delay of the repatriation of the bodies and the tampering of the crash site.
The Dutch people, too, were upset over this. Arike van de Water, a graduate student from Dordrecht, said: “The crime scene is about as contaminated as it gets: bodies removed, searched by rebels, looted. That disgusts me, by the way, the disrespect, and the fact the dead were not left to rest in peace or properly recovered.”
As precious time passed while the Dutch government negotiated the repatriation of bodies from pro-Russian controlled territory, there were newspaper columns and members of parliament discussing the use of military to recover the bodies and secure the crash site.
In the meantime, many friends and acquaintances I spoke with remained practical and level-headed in their opinions. Isabel Tuenis, a Hague native, said that “we don’t know yet who the attackers are. I find this talk about retaliation extremely creepy and premature.” Ludy Methorst, also a Hague native, said: “People say we should have sent the Dutch army right away. I think it would have been a wrong decision, it would not have resolved the problems for the families who lost their beloved ones.”
In the coming weeks and months, identification of the bodies by the Dutch National Forensic Investigations Team (LTFO) and international investigation into the cause of the incident will continue. The media will continue to show updates while the Dutch government pursues their promise on bringing the perpetrators to justice. However, the old adage “life goes on” is something that can be said here. The Dutch will continue with their daily lives, hoping that the victims’ families get closure and justice.