Some were flying home. Others starting the holiday of a lifetime. But they never arrived at their destination. On 17 July 2014, a missile shot down Malaysia Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, including 196 Dutch nationals. More than seven years later, a court in the Netherlands has heard some of their stories and how the lives of their grief-stricken families were changed for ever.
Over three weeks, more than 90 relatives of MH17 victims have given testimony of lives cut short. Schools not started, plans never to be realised, ordinary pleasures of family meals and hobbies denied.
“The speakers shared their grief, their pain, their frustration, sometimes their anger, but also their memories and many happy moments and often hopeful thoughts for the future,” said presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, in brief closing remarks on Friday at the court near Schiphol airport. Thanking the relatives for giving the victims “a voice and a face”, he said: “This has made a deep and lasting impact on the court and the court is grateful to you for it.”
Earlier in the week, Richard van Vreeswijk told the court about his youngest son, Huub, a good-looking boy with dark curly hair, who played football and was planning to take driving lessons. Huub was 17 when he was killed, alongside his mother, Barbara de Bruin, her partner, Rob van de Kraats, and his son, Lorenzo.
The four were going to Bali on holiday, before Huub began studying sport and business at college in Arnhem on 1 September. Instead that was the day Richard van Vreeswijk viewed his son’s body in the mortuary. Dressed in black shirt, tie and jacket, he recalled his pain as he thought of the empty chair at the college his son had chosen.
“That chair was meant for my son. He had worked hard for it and he had really earned it. He was the one who hadn’t turned up to class, who no one knew and no one missed,” van Vreeswijk said.
For van Vreeswijk, grief manifested itself as physical pain – sometimes his left arm was out of action, or he had searing toothache. He went to the doctor because his face was inflamed with persistent crying. After some years he realised “the physical pain I felt was grief. It was the reverse of the love I felt for Huub. It was the price I paid for loving him and for missing him every single day.”
Richard’s older son, Nick van Vreeswijk, now 25, described the pain of losing his mother and brother, compounded by people’s expectations about how he should grieve. “Every year I dread 17 July, Mother’s Day, birthdays and other holidays. But for me personally the emptiness is not greater on those days, but others expect me to feel that way. But to me, no one is extra dead on certain days.”
The relatives’ testimony is just the tip of an iceberg of grief. The victims of MH17 were from 10 countries. Some relatives gave testimony via video link from Australia and Indonesia. Judges and lawyers dressed in black robes were shown pictures of the victims, smiling family snaps that no one in their worst nightmares could have imagined would end up in a legal file.
“The magnitude and intensity of the impact is unfathomable: 298 loved ones leave thousands behind in grief,” Arlette Schijns, a lawyer for the relatives, said on Friday. “The right to address the court has made it clear to us that the grief is not limited to one generation. It will have a lasting impact on several generations … the pain and suffering that has been caused can be compared to war trauma.”
Four men stand accused of murder: three Russians, Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko.
An international investigation concluded that the men did not “push the button” themselves, but were responsible for bringing the anti-aircraft system to eastern Ukraine. The soldiers, investigators said, “formed a chain” linking the Moscow-backed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic with Russia.
The Netherlands and Australia said in 2018 that Russia was responsible for the disaster, after investigators concluded the BUK missile had come from a Russian military base.
The Kremlin has angrily denied any involvement, while claiming it was excluded from the investigation.
All four are being tried in absentia. Only Pulatov has chosen to be represented by lawyers, who have denied the charges on his behalf. Relatives voiced anger that no one had taken responsibility for the crime.
“They are lying, we know they are lying and they know that we know they are lying,” said Ria van der Steen, the first relative to give testimony. She lost her father and stepmother and told the court how she began to have nightmares soon after learning of their deaths.
“I am full of feelings of hate, revenge, anger and fear that we will not obtain justice,” she said. “Anger and frustration that those who are responsible will not take responsibility. I can’t put an end to this process of saying goodbye, certainly not until those who are responsible for their deaths are tried and found to be guilty for what they have done.”
Nick van Vreeswijk appealed to those responsible for downing the plane to tell the court the truth. “The relatives of 298 victims for seven years now have been looking at this jet black puzzle that doesn’t seem to fit. And my grieving process cannot progress without that truth. Over 1,000 people, 1,000 relatives are still waiting for that answer, for the story. Was it an accident? Was it intentional? How did it happen?”
Paul Marckelbach-Hellings told the court “my whole family was snatched from me when MH17 was blasted from the sky”. He lost his mother, Christiene de Sadeleer, “a warm, hospitable, life-loving woman” of 64 taking her first big trip after being widowed. Also killed was his “wise, beautiful sister in her prime” Simone Marckelbach, his “jovial go-getting brother in-law”, Antoine van Veldhuizen, and their two children, Quint and Pijke.
Quint, who was seven years old, would never take part in the school musical or have a first crush, Marckelbach-Hellings told the court. Pijke, who was three, would never go to big school or learn to ride a bike, he said. “The life that lay before him cannot be lived.”
Via a statement read by her husband, his wife, Joyce Hellings-Marckelbach, told the court how that carefree sunny day flipped into the darkest period of their lives. Coping with her own grief that caused her health to decline, she watched as her husband struggled with all-consuming despair. On that day “we lost joy in living, we lost confidence, a feeling of security. There is the constant knowledge that it could all be over in an instant.”
Never in the history of the Dutch criminal justice system have so many relatives taken up their right to address the court. Others preferred to table written statements, while some families may take up their right to speak in November.
The court may deliver a verdict in the final months of 2022.