MH17: Families' quest for hope years after Ukraine air disaster

By Anna Holligan
BBC News, The Hague

Published
Related Topics
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The wreckage of MH17 landed across a wide area after it was shot down by Russian-backed separatists

When a passenger plane was shot down by rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014 the shockwaves reverberated around the world.

Nowhere was the impact greater than among the relatives and friends left behind by the 298 people on board flight MH17 from Amsterdam.

As the BBC's correspondent based in the Netherlands, I've been reporting on this air disaster since that July day when a Russian-made surface-to-air missile exploded next to the Malaysia Airlines cockpit.

Interviewing victims' families I heard the most soul-shattering memories, of parents being handed a few fragments of their dead children's bones.

But over the years I've witnessed a heaviness lift and optimism emerge.

Science, logic and reason failed to provide satisfactory answers to families asking gut-wrenching questions.

Did the passengers suffer in their final moments? Were they conscious when the Boeing 777 plummeted to the ground?

Many families have since sought solace elsewhere, some in spirituality, others in mystery.

Their testimony of how they emerged from the darkness of despair provides a powerful precedent for anyone navigating the wilderness of grief.

"I cried, and I yelled. And I really, really felt it," said Robbert van Heijningen, who found out about the disaster, which killed several of his loved ones, while on a camping holiday in France. His immediate response was to travel to Russia: "to fight the ones who are responsible for this."

Then came the grief.

Image caption,
Robbert and Loes van Heijningen have sought comfort in faith and unusual signs

No detectives, politicians or scientists seemed able to answer the many questions that plagued the families in the aftermath, and Robbert put his hope in faith.

His priest, Jules, assured him the souls of the 298 would be intact.

And when bodies were repatriated from the crash site in pieces, Robbert was advised not to look: "It's too awful," he was warned.

"Body is just body and soul is the spirit of the people who went," he comforts himself, scrolling through family snapshots.

'We cherished the bones'

Bryce Fredriksz, 23, and his sweetheart, 20-year-old Daisy Oehlers, had been sitting in row 17, on their way to a holiday in Bali.

It was months before a charred piece of Bryce's foot and a fragment of Daisy's hipbone were recovered, but for Bryce's mother Silene it was important.

Image caption,
Daisy and Bryce were sitting in row 17 when the plane was shot down

"It felt so good that they were finally home," she said. The bones were placed inside a heart-shaped coffin designed for babies.

"The most important thing was that they were identified because then they existed again."

Even though they were badly burned, it was important to have a cremation, she told me, as a proper goodbye with friends and family. "Every little piece that was found of them belongs with us, just with us."

For theologian Mariecke van den Berg, the MH17 disaster presented a totally different perspective from what she was used to.

Image caption,
For Mariecke van den Berg the disaster raised new theological questions

"It was a new reality. There are bodies scattered in a field, and how do you talk about that?" she said as we strolled though a cemetery. "I found that the Christian tradition is at least one of the possible reservoirs of language that you can tap into."

She began to explore the significance of bones in the Bible, and the idea that human beings were created by God: "They have lived and they have been significant for you, and you have loved them. And you have a story together. That doesn't end when they end."

Schiphol airport near Amsterdam was the last place the passengers and crew on MH17 touched the ground alive.

And that idea of keeping memories alive was integral to the decision to conduct the criminal trial in a courtroom close to the runway where the plane took off.

More than 90 relatives testified. Among them, the father of a promising young musician, Thami Uijterlinde, who described the experience as "the last act of love" for his child.

None of the four suspects - three Russians and one Ukrainian national - have set foot in court.

But investing their faith in justice has provided hope for those left behind of establishing an incontestable truth - to dispel all the misinformation surrounding the missile attack on the plane.

A verdict is expected later this year.

Sister Mary Philomene Tiernan was an Australian nun known to her friends as Sister Phil.

Days before she boarded flight MH17 she had been on a religious retreat in France where she had shared a poem by Michael Josephson. What will matter, he writes, is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you're gone.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
After the disaster a national monument was set up to remember the victims of the missile attack

Aideen Kinlen, who had been her spiritual director, said she had even prayed about her death.

"It wasn't religious as such, it was simply a moral reflection on the things that matter in life," she explained. "It's really what you gave, not what you got."

Last month, Silene Fredriksz decorated a Christmas tree for the first time since 2014.

"I didn't believe in anything... not in ghosts, not in spirits, not in the life hereafter, but then MH17 happened."

Now she recounts signs that she believes indicate Bryce and Daisy are present, such as lights or the television going on and off by themselves.

Coincidences comfort her that somehow the couple are still around, somehow sending a message.

Image caption,
The victims of MH17 are commemorated at this memorial close to Schiphol airport

Robbert van Heijningen and his wife Loes show me what looks strikingly like the silhouette of a plane, jutting out from a sandstone wall in a church in the northern city of Bolsward,

They only noticed it after MH17.

On another occasion they recall driving to light candles for Robbert's brother Erik, sister-in-law Tina and nephew Zeger. "Three butterflies landed on the windscreen," said Robbert who describes himself as a naturally sceptical lawyer. "It was the first time we saw three, and we said that was them saying goodbye."

Memories, coincidences and faith are just some of the tools the families have found to treasure the lives of those they lost in the skies above eastern Ukraine. And almost eight years on, they cling to the hope that the individuals to blame will be brought to justice.

You can hear more from the families in Anna's BBC documentary, MH17: Faith after disaster.

More on this story