MH17 crash site
Wreckage of Flight MH17

In 2010 my son was in Cape Town, South Africa. He was due to board a flight that would take him to Libya, Madrid and then on to Amsterdam. In Libya the unthinkable happened; during landing the plane crashed and all 193 passengers save one little boy died.

When the news hits, your world ends. It’s like someone has punched you hard and it becomes difficult to breathe. But after the initial shock you get yourself together and try to find out what happened.

There is no immediately available phone number in cases like this; it’s no use calling the police, hospital or any other likely authority. You cannot get in your car and drive to the place where it happened. I phoned Foreign Affairs and they said they would get back to me, but nine years later they still haven’t.

Hours and many tears later that day, my phone rang. It was my son. He had booked a later flight because of work-related obligations.

When MH17 dropped from the sky it took me back to that day. I knew exactly what the relatives, mothers and fathers of those on board were going through during those first hours. Of course, unlike the crash in Libya, this was no accident.

Soon after the smoke plumes rising from a foreign sunflower field were extinguished, it became evident that this downing was the result of a crime. The plane had been targeted and knowingly shot down.

The gut-wrenching realisation that this had been an intentional act and that it could have been avoided must have been almost unbearable for those involved. It also placed MH17 in a different category from most other aircraft tragedies.

Because of the area in which the plane was shot down, the MH17 disaster presented political, humanitarian and geographical problems that had never been dealt with in any other aircraft fatality before. The random targeting of airliners by insurgents using ground-to-air missiles was unheard of.

It also became one of the most media highlighted airline tragedies in history because it happened in a world that had become extremely digitised. Imagery of the downed aircraft was available on the internet just minutes after it occurred, and people turned to social media for updates and news flashes.

Although the targeting of MH17 was most likely a mistake made by trigger-happy separatists and their Russian aides, that does not make it a lesser crime. Murder is murder even if the target wasn’t the one you were aiming at. But how does one find the culprits in a war-torn country where separatists and self-declared authorities are known by many different names and a leaking Russian border enables men and weaponry to slip from one country to another?

Despite the recent charges made against four suspects, no one appears to accept any blame for what happened to MH17. Not those responsible for leading the rebel movement in the Donbass area of Ukraine; not the Russians who claim they were not involved in the goings on in Ukraine; and not Ukraine who don’t take responsibility for the decision to keep their airspace open even though they knew their own military planes were being shot out of the skies. One on July 16, just a day before the MH17 disaster. 

But maybe in the end we are all slightly responsible for what happened that day.

There is still a war going on in Donbass. To this day people are still losing their lives. But we have lost interest and have turned our heads in a world that has become too small to allow us the luxury of looking away.

If anything, the disaster of July 17 has made it clear that if we turn away from poverty and war it will eventually come to haunt us. In our world international terrorism as well as the unrestricted flow of weaponry have no regard for state borders, national sovereignty or human lives, and peace and security cannot be taken for granted.

Migrants will try to escape their poor countries and corrupt governments, crossing borders and seas by the thousands to secure a safe life for themselves and their children. Therefore the foreign policy of every country should be more than just a short-term national interest. The fate of Flight MH17 has taught us that the problems other countries face can quickly become disastrous for all of us.

Marianne van Velzen is the author of Shot Down: The Powerful Story of What Happened to MH17 Over Ukraine and the Lives of Those Who Were on Board.

Peter Fray

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