At 15:18 the aircraft crashes, possibly having been shot down by a missile fired by Pro-Russian separatists. All passengers died, among them 193 Dutch citizens. Dutch society suffered an incomparable loss. The relatives of those who were on board of flight MH17 can still not come to terms with what happened even 6 months after the tragedy.
After crossing Ukraine’s border, the plane had to climb to an altitude of 33,000 ft (10,060 M) due to closed airspace beneath 32,000 ft (9750 M). It was believed that the ongoing armed conflict between Pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army was not a danger to them at this altitude. NATO’s supreme commander general Philip Breedlove had warned on 30 June during a press conference in the Pentagon about Pro-Russian separatists being trained to use mobile launchers: “Russia had been providing air defense training to Russian separatists on its side of the border with Ukraine that focused on “vehicle-borne” surface-to-air missiles”. Other countries such as the USA, the UK, Canada, France and Australia were already avoiding the Ukrainian airspace. However, this information was only shared with their own airlines. The wreckage and the passengers of the plane had scattered across an area of 35 square kilometres near Hrabove, a small village 50 kilometres from the Russian border. The tail of the aircraft was found 10 kilometres away from the rest of the wreckage, which is a sign of an explosion at a high distance.
The Netherlands took the lead in the criminal investigation of the aircraft due to the large number of Dutch victims. While the exact cause of the crash is still being investigated, the bodies of the victims have almost all been identified and transported back to their homes. By 11 December 294 victims had been identified, but other bodies are still being examined by a team of Dutch experts.
The crash did not only cause grieve among the relatives, but also angered many other people. This was sparked by reports of Pro-Russian separatists or Ukrainians who ransacked the crash site and supposedly manipulated evidence. A photo of a man with a stuffed rabbit and photos of men with passports of the victims in their hands led to a burst of outrage in the Netherlands. “Just imagine for one minute, first to lose your husband and then to have to fear that some thug might steal his wedding ring from his remains. Just imagine that this could be your spouse. To my dying day I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs and that human remains should be used in a despicable political game. I hope the world will not have to witness this again, any time in the future”, said European commissioner Frans Timmermans (Vice President of the European Commission) in his emotional speech during the UN security council on 21 July.
The storage of the bodies took a tremendous amount of time. The 227 coffins containing the remains of the victims did not arrive in the Netherlands until 9 days after the crash. The wreckage of the aircraft was first examined on 18 July, when a team of Dutch forensic experts arrived at the crash site, but local rebels partly denied them access. The experts could examine the location, but were not allowed to take away parts that could provide crucial evidence. After that the crash site was closed down by the same men from 27 July to 31 July. It took the team until 1 August to get back. Still no evidence was transported to the Netherlands. After a few months of being at the crash site and being sent away again three times, the last wreckage and remains of the victims were transported on a train to the Netherlands on 3 December.
The Dutch victims who were identified had already been transported from Eindhoven airport to Hilversum in a procession of black cars. All flags were at half-mast, all church bells rang from 15:55 to 16:00, all public broadcasters adapted their program to the cortege, all public transport stopped: trains, airplanes, buses together with their passengers. An entire country stopped and went silent for a minute. I was in a train at that moment. The entire compartment went silent for a minute. Everybody was, in their thoughts, with the victims. 298 people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, killed by accident, killed during a conflict which was not theirs.
Many newspapers still dedicate pages of interviews to relatives of the victims. In an annual review in the NRC Handelsblad, an interview was published of an ex-student from the Montessori Lyceum Amsterdam who was on the plane. He had graduated in 2013 and was currently working in a club. His mother was already at their holiday destination in Bali. At the airport he sent her a message saying; “Mom, I’m going to give you a hug. I am going to hug you because you never know don’t you? It’s Malaysia Airlines.” His friends carried his coffin at his funeral which took place in a church close to his school.
In the summer Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country’s relations with Russia had fundamentally changed following the downing of the airliner. At national level entire families were broken apart. Although the number of victims was 298, thousands of lives have been changed by this most horrific event; thousands of innocent lives will never be the same. During armed conflicts someone always has to pay the price, and this time it was paid by the clean-handed.