Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thank you, Netherlands – Dorothy Teoh

Sunflowers are among my favourite flowers. They look as if they have trapped the sun’s warmth and golden rays in their yellow petals. Their bright daisy-like flower heads seem almost relentlessly cheerful as they nod on their stalks. But after MH17, I don’t think I could ever look at sunflowers in the same way again.
In my mind, they will always be associated with death instead of life, and with the killing of innocents in a war in which they had no part. Fields of sunflowers which should have brought cheer to those who look at them have now become killing fields, their tall stalks hiding untold horrors – debris from the downed airliner, clothing, toys, photographs, mementoes of almost 300 lives ended in an untimely way.
And body parts, because investigators have told us that some have still not been recovered. For days I did not want to look at the photographs of the victims on countless news websites. I knew they would be distressing – even though I did not know any of those on board, nor was I connected to them in any way. But finally I did, clicking on the photos on TIME magazine’s website. 
Two are imprinted on my mind – the body of a victim, perhaps a woman, who had fallen through the roof of a house into someone’s bedroom, and that of a little child, naked and covered by a clear plastic sheet, with flowers placed on top.
What went through the mind of that person as the plane disintegrated in mid-air? Was she or he travelling with a loved one and, as the Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans poignantly asked in his address to the UN Security Council, "Did they look each other in the eyes, one final time, in a wordless goodbye?" Who cradled that child as it became apparent that the plane was going down? I hope someone did, and I hope that the end came quickly so that all on board were spared the fear that we can only imagine, and the horror as hope ebbed away.
Because they were certainly not spared the indignity of death and exposure to the elements, to human eyes and camera lenses as their bodies, some naked, lay in the open in those fields for days. This may have been a war zone but the passengers on Flight MH17 were civilians. Soldiers who fall in battle are treated with dignity. What more when these passengers were civilians, on their way to distant lands for honeymoons and vacations, for work or heading home, to be reunited with families and loved ones? 
The hands of those responsible (and I say hands because it was not just of the one who pressed that button to launch that missile) should have been quick to do whatever was necessary to protect the dignity of those who perished on MH17. It is not about admission of guilt, it is about human decency, about humanity as opposed to bestiality.
It fell to the Dutch to do what the culpable did not. I happened to put on the television last night (July 23) just as CNN was broadcasting live the arrival of the bodies at Eindhoven air base in the Netherlands. I was riveted to the screen for the next few hours, watching as the first 40 victims in their simple wooden coffins were carried with great care and respect from the Dutch and Australian transport planes to the fleet of shiny black hearses lined up on the runway as Dutch military personnel stood to attention.
I watched as their Majesties King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and representatives of the 11 nations whose nationals perished on that flight stood to pay their last respects as the hearses drove off slowly. I watched as the cortege took that long journey from Eindhoven to the military barracks in the town of Hilversum where forensic experts will begin their grim task of identifying the remains.
Along the route, on the highway where cars had pulled over, on overhead passes and in laybys, the Dutch – men and women, old and young – watched, many in silence, some in tears and others applauding and throwing flowers – as the hearses passed by.
The scenes of the Dutch countryside, so ordered, tidy and green, contrasted starkly with the scenes of carnage and chaos that the world has been subject to since the plane was brought down. In a strange way, it was balm to the soul, at least for me, coming from a nation that has experienced two aviation tragedies in the space of four months and the ensuing loss of so many lives. Watching the ceremony at Eindhoven which was redolent of military honours too was in a sense healing.
A convoy of hearses, bearing remains of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash, are escorted yesterday along the A27 highway by military police to Hilversum, where they will be identified by forensic experts, near Nieuwegein. – Reuters pic, July 24, 2014. 

Every step of the pallbearers, every salute, the requiem played, reclaimed for those who perished the respect and dignity which they had been robbed of. And the sight of so many Dutch people who had turned up to honour the dead despite not knowing who were in those 40 hearses or indeed, if any of them were their 193 countrymen who died, made me feel gratitude. So thank you, people and government of the Netherlands. You have shown us humanity at its best. – July 24, 2014.
* Dorothy Teoh is CEO of The Edge Education Foundation.
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