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MH17 families seek answers as suspects face trial

Mikhail Bushuev
December 8, 2019

Five years go, Piet Ploeg lost multiple members of his family when flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. Like others affected by the tragedy, he hopes the upcoming trial will bring those responsible to justice.

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard as monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and members of a Malaysian air crash investigation team inspect the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Image: Reuters

When four suspects in the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine's Donbass region are tried in the Netherlands next year, Piet Ploeg will be there. Ploeg, who lost several relatives in the incident, says he wants to witness every single day of the trial to "learn who carries responsibility" for the tragedy.

On July 17, 2014 Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam, bound for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As the Boeing 777 flew over eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, it was struck by a surface-to-air missile and crashed, killing all 298 people on board, including 80 children. Ploeg says "this day changed everything." 

The Dutch government believes Russia carries primary responsibility for the downing of flight MH17. And now, five years after the incident, the Joint Investigation Team — comprised of Dutch, Australian, Belgian, Malaysian and Ukrainian investigators — has identified four main suspects: three Russian and one Ukrainian national, who are believed to be located in Russia or separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine. They will therefore be tried in absentia when the case begins on March 9, 2020.

Read more: Flight MH17, five years on: What happens next?

Human remains of two passengers still unaccounted for

Ploeg lost his older brother Alex, his sister-in-law and his nephew when flight MH17 was shot down. His brother, a passionate biologist, had wanted to take his wife and son on a trip to the tropics. While their remains have been found, those of Ploeg's brother still have not.

Piet Ploeg stands along a canal
Ploeg says the death of his brother Alex and family 'dealt a severe blow'Image: DW/Mikhail Bushuev

Ploeg says no body and no luggage has so far been retrieved. Even so, he is hopeful because "several hundred fragments [left over from the crash] which have not yet been identified will be analyzed using high-end technology — but the results will only be available by June or July next year."

His brother's daughters did not join their dad on the flight to Malaysia. Now, Ploeg looks after them. The younger of the two wants to become a biologist, just like her late father. Ploeg says the death of his brother Alex, his wife and their son "dealt a severe blow" to their parents, who died in 2019. After the death of his brother, Ploeg — like many other relatives and family members of those killed in the MH17 crash — needed psychological counseling. He also quit his job as a public administrator near Utrecht.

Read more: MH17 downing and probe: What you need to know

A dmanaged missile is displayed during a press conference by the JIT in the Netherlands
Flight MH17 was brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missileImage: Reuters/f. Lenoir

No hatred toward Russians

Today, Ploeg is director of Vliegramp MH17, a foundation representing the vast majority of those who lost loved ones on that fateful day in July 2014. He works on a pro bono basis, helping prepare the March trial, assisting others who lost family members and friends in the tragedy and supporting them in taking legal action against Russia, for example in the European Court of Human Rights.

Ploeg told DW he is often asked about his view of Russia and Ukraine. "They all think I hate Russians, but I don't," he explains. "It is the Russian army or state that do strange things, yet that says nothing about the people of Russia."

He never used to follow developments in Eastern Europe, but that all changed after July 2014. Now, he is eager to get his head around the Ukrainian conflict and wants to know, above all, who carries responsibility for the attack on flight MH17.

"We want to learn about the structures behind the people who shot down this plane, and how they did it," he says. Ploeg is eager find out if this was a deliberate attack on a civilian passenger plane.

Read more: Specter of MH17 haunts Kremlin

Netherlands Judicial Complex Schiphol
Four suspects will be tried in absentia in the Netherlands next yearImage: AFP/R. de Waal

Trial could go on for years

Ploeg says he wants to attend the trial not only for his own sake, but also to represent all those who cannot be there in person. The proceedings are expected to last at least 1 1/2 years — if the defendants do not make use of their right hire lawyers. If they do, the trial could drag on for many more years. "Maybe five or six years — nobody can say for sure; but that does not matter, the trial is the most important thing in my life right now," Ploeg explains.

When asked whether he thinks Ukraine is in any way responsible for the downing of the plane, he replies: "the Ukrainian state did not do it, but we would like to talk to Ukraine [about] why it did not block its airspace to so many civilian planes."

His foundation wants to make sure that countries embroiled in civil wars will be obliged to close their airspace because, as he says, the Dutch security council a few months ago reported such areas are very dangerous "and we do not want something like this ever to happen again."

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