United in grief – watching as MH17 victims return to the Netherlands

YET AGAIN, I find myself sitting in front of the TV, watching another extra broadcast regarding the events in the Ukraine. Currently, Dutch national TV is reporting the return of the first victims to the Netherlands – a return, that is, if the victims were indeed Dutch. A procession of forty cars is carrying the victims from Eindhoven Airport to an army base, where they will be identified.

 Like so many events regarding the MH17 crash, it seems surreal. Forty coffins, forty bodies, still not identified. The highway is empty except for this long line of hearses. People stand on viaducts and alongside the road, throwing flowers, clapping or placing a hand on their hearts, out of respect. The Dutch are, to my knowledge, not known for their emotional expressiveness, yet I am sure I’m not the only one who’s shed a tear or two watching the news this past week.

 On CNN, a reporter explained that given the size of the Dutch population (around 16 million) the impact of ‘MH17’ is relatively similar to that of the events on 9/11. Everybody knows somebody that knows somebody. Last year, I must have had some drinks with one of the victims, as we were part of the same research group. Although I only stayed in touch with a handful members of the group, her smiling face pops up in my memory from time to time. It is heartbreaking to imagine how one minute, she and 297 others were on their way to an amazing holiday, a conference, home or work, and the next, as an eyewitness testified, “people just started falling from the sky”.

The cars make a turn, leaving the highway. They are minutes away from their destination. Hundreds of people have gathered at the roundabout, People are clapping, goose bumps run all over my body. A friend took the same flight one year ago, she told me after another minute of silence last Friday. Shivers ran down my spine and we, two very down-to-earth girls, held each other tight.

Today marks a national day of mourning in The Netherlands, the first since the death of Queen Wilhelmina in 1962. Where in Brazil, the death of Nelson Mandela was cause for seven days of national mourning, we in the Netherlands are strangers to such a tradition. Announced only yesterday afternoon, people were quick in finding ways to pay their respects. Church bells rang at different moments throughout the day, and as the two airplanes with the first forty victims touched down at Eindhoven Airport, the nation held a minute of silence. At my university, which is pretty much abandoned during the summer holidays, huge flags were hung half-mast. I went to the beach with a friend, but chose a modest, black dress over my many summery, flowery beach dresses. A much shared blog post is titled ‘I don’t know you, but I’m thinking of you’. It expresses the feeling many in this small country share.

On Channel 2, Dutch churches pay their respect in a shared broadcast, called ‘United in Grief’’. Outside the church, flowers portray a plane. Churches in The Netherlands are supposed to become less and less crowded on Sundays, but today even on the square outside the church people have gathered to follow the service on large screens.

In the first few days after the crash, Rutte’s tone of voice was careful, diplomatic. He seemed reluctant to express his frustration at the pro-Russian separatists. He refused to make a statement regarding the role Russia played in delivering the armor that was used to take down the plane, whether this happened on purpose or by accident.

But as investigators were denied access to the scene, and especially when footage surfaced on which victims’ wedding rings were taken off their fingers, the Prime Minister showed his frustration and straight-out anger. He had a ‘sincere’ conversation with President Putin and he found it ‘disgusting’ that the victims’ bodies were robbed as they were laying in the burning sun for three to five days. He used language and emotion one does not expect from a Dutch Prime Minister, commentators and analysts later said. The emotional speech given by Minister of Foreign Affairs Timmermans on Tuesday, at the UN Security Council in Brussels, made an even larger impact.

During the past week, Rutte has stressed that his first and foremost priority was getting the victims back to their loved ones. In order to do so, he argued, it would be counterproductive to use strong language and start pointing fingers before all the facts were in. Now that most of the bodies are secured, Rutte appears to change his tone. The focus now shifts to the research on the ground, and to the promise of both politicians that the Dutch shall not rest before the final stone is turned and those that are to blame have been put to justice. As talks of an international police force guarding the site of the crash and the researchers take serious forms, it seems the tactics Rutte and Timmermans used are paying off.

The bodies are coming home, now it’s time to start turning those stones. The Dutch people are curious to see whether their Prime Minister will indeed become ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy’.

 On Channel 1, the hearses arrive at the military base. A large crowd has gathered and applauds the victims as the hearses pass. Some hold their hands across their mouths, while others have tears rolling down their cheeks. The reporter reminds us that this is only the first group of victims, and that another 258 still wait for their transportation to The Netherlands.

In the Ukraine, only tens of kilometers from the crash site, a rebel group publishes a video in which they triumphantly show that they have brought down a military airplane – triumphant because, after all, “we told you what would happen if you would fly here.” 

After this day of national mourning, I feel like smashing something.



Written by Lisanne Oldekamp  

 Picture credits: fjavisantos,  liveyourlife


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