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MH17 families suffer continuing loss and anger

Teri Schultz
September 23, 2021

Seven years after the MH17 disaster, victims' families are having their days — and say — in court. The fact that none of the accused are present has caused added pain, Teri Schultz reports.

Ukraine Gedenkstätte Opfer des Flugs MH17
Families and friends of those killed in the downing have found little healing over timeImage: picture-alliance/Tass/A. Kravchenko

Family member after family member describes agony so excruciating it seems as if Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has just been shot out of the sky today — not back on July 17, 2014, when it fell to the ground in pieces across eastern Ukraine. For many, the years have been an entirely insufficient healer.

Braving an emotional battlefield

Cecile Brouwer is one of those people. Her sister Therese, brother-in-law Charles and their two children were on board MH17. "If I tell you that it is an emotional battle that still drags on today," Brouwer said, "believe me, I'm understating it." She described being "inconsolable" over the loss and says her marriage and other relationships have suffered, admitting that she snaps at her own children just for calling "Mama." She was angry, she said, to receive Christmas cards with cheery messages and to see people celebrating New Year's Eve.

Judges at the criminal trial in the MH17 case.
Judges have heard three weeks of testimony from relatives of victims of MH17Image: Peter Dejong/AP Photo/picture alliance

Brouwer was one of about 90 relatives of the 298 victims, most of them Dutch, to use the right afforded by the Netherlands' legal system to speak in court. Three weeks of presentations wrap up Friday, with one more date in November.

'I think of them every day'

"It's now seven years later and those emotions are less powerful," Brouwer told the panel of judges in the high-security court in Amsterdam. "But what happened does not become less awful. I think of them every day, all four of them, they're still everywhere I go and wherever I am." She spoke of how painful it still is, however, to hear or read that "everything's been said that can be said" [about the case] or "move on with your life" or "bad things happen all the time," or even "there they go again, the relatives." 

Lidwina Niewold, whose brother Tallander died in the crash at age 22, described how for years afterward she suffered fears that would have previously seemed irrational, such as moving quickly or even going grocery shopping. "I was afraid of open spaces, of explosions, assaults, terrorist attacks," she said. One of her other brothers, Olduf, spoke of mourning not just Tallander but all the "innocent, beloved people, babies, teenagers, mommies and daddies, grannies and granddads — so many families torn apart, scarred for life."

Everybody hurts

The scale of the tragedy was so massive for the country of 17.3 million people that almost no one remained untouched, near or far. Even one of the victims' attorneys, Peter Langstraat from the Moree Gelderblom law firm told DW he, too, was surprised by how deeply he has been affected. "I should be, after 30 years, perhaps a hard and cynical lawyer, having seen almost everything," he said. "But there is a thick — very thick — emotional layer when you enter the court room. I had to control myself while speaking for my clients."

But it didn't just feel like the entire Dutch society experienced sorrow. By chance, science proved the impact was in fact widespread and measurable. Researchers happened to be conducting a study at the time of the crash gauging the physical impact of events on people who didn't personally witness them or have a personal connection. 

Dutch researcher Bertus Jeronimus, University of Groningen
Dutch researcher Bertus Jeronimus found people were physically impacted by the crash even if they had no links to victimsImage: privat

The University of Groningen's Bertus Jeronimus, the project's lead researcher, explained what the team found when analyzing data from 141 subjects who recorded their sentiments three times per day over 30 days, including July 17, 2014. Despite the MH17 crash being something that happened "thousands of kilometers, to people we don't know," he said, subjects reported "more negative emotions or that they were more sad, had much less positive emotions … more headaches, more stomach pain, those kind of somatic complaints."

The sense of "acute stress" lasted approximately three days before subsiding. "[It's] a fascinating example of how we're all socially connected," Jeronimus said. "Stories and information communicated in the media — we respond to that." He said this isn't the only conclusion of this kind, noting that similar studies after 9/11 found even women who lived in Sweden or elsewhere in Europe and were in no way involved in 9/11," showed physical effects in terms of, for example, how their pregnancy unfolded or these kind of experiences. So these are really significant things."

Anguish and anger

Back in the courtroom, relatives are expressing another source of frustration: The fact that while they must suffer enduring loss, the four men charged with responsibility for launching what investigators believe was a BUK missile supplied by Russia are free to enjoy their lives. At least three of them, Russian citizens, are believed to be in Russia and the fourth, a Ukrainian citizen, has appointed defense attorneys to be present but will not attend himself. The Kremlin has denied involvement and rejected extradition of the accused.

The attorney for relatives of Australian victims Michael and Carol Clancy delivered an angry demand. "I want every one of those people — from the person 'just following orders' to those issuing the orders — to be held accountable for the wreckage of our lives," she told the court. "I want to know why they thought it was a good idea to shoot and blow to pieces a commercial flight and then deny they did it; I want the Russian president to stop lying and admit that the shooting down of the plane and I want him to tell the Russian people what he has done."

Russian suspects live it up

Instead, as attorney Langstraat pointed out, "you see pictures of those [defendants] having vodka on their boats. And again, they are suspects, so we have to wait for the sentence, but maybe they're responsible for the death of almost 300 people, and the attitude of the Russian Federation remains one of denial, creating their own reality, misinformation."

MH17 investigators continue to add to their case. They've just launched their latest appeal for help from the public, this time asking Russians from the town believed to be the origin of the missile, Kursk, to come forward with information. One victim's mother, Vera Oreshkin, pleaded for their help in Russian.