In Flight 17 crash aftermath, an agonizing wait for families seeking proper burial


A photograph of Malaysia Airlines MH17 chief flight attendant Azrina Yakob, 41, is seen on a table inside her home in Sungai Pelek, Sepang. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
July 20, 2014

In a small, terra-cotta-roofed home just outside Kuala Lumpur, grieving family members sat in silence on mats and carpets on the floor. Malaysia’s 24-hours news channel played softly in the background.

They were waiting for news — any news — of what has become of their beloved “Rina,” who was aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 when it was shot out of the sky last week.

Families of the victims now face new agony — watching the fate of their loved ones’ remains play out on international TV, as rebels limit access to the crash scene and international mediators struggle to determine what has become of the bodies.

Azlin Yakob, 43, said she is holding out hope that her sister’s body will be found. Azrina Yakob was a flight attendant for Malaysia Airlines.

“At least — hopefully! — we can still bring back her remains and give her a proper burial,” Azlin Yakob said.

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesperson of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, describes to the journalists the scene at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. He said that the location had a heavy security presence and that “they were being watched very carefully.” (Divya Jeswani Verma/The Washington Post)

The wait has disrupted the traditional burial practices of some communities, including Malaysia’s Muslims. It recalls the experience of families caught in Malaysia’s other horrific air tragedy, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March, in which families delayed last rites and prayers and still do not have grave sites at which they can mourn. Islamic rituals, for example, call for bathing the body and wrapping it in plain cloth, usually on the day of death. The body is then buried after a prayer is offered.

Shahidan Kassim, 48, a businessman who is the brother of Dora Shahila Kassim, the chief flight attendant on Flight 17, said that every time he sees TV footage of the body bags, his heart lurches.

“It’s been more than three days. We’ve accepted the fact that she is gone,” he said. “But we will be thankful to God to have her remains to bury her.”

Rohani Abdul Karim, minister of Malaysia’s Women, Family and Community Development, met with some of the grieving families Sunday at a local Marriott hotel to show support.

“All of them have the same wish, which is to bring back whatever remains of their loved ones so that there will be a proper burial, ritual rites, as well as graves for them to visit,” she told reporters after the meeting.

Forty-three Malaysians died in the plane crash in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, including 15 crew members. Among the victims was a family of six who had been on holiday in Europe and were returning to Malaysia after living the past few years in Kazakhstan: wife Ariza Gazalee, husband Tambi Jiee, who worked for Shell, and their four children, Afruz, Afzal, Afif and Azmeena.

“We are full of sorrow,” Ariza Gazalee’s uncle, Shakri Anuar, 57, said in a telephone interview from the city of Kuching.

Grandfather of American victim on the doomed Flight MH17 recalls the moment he got the bad news. His grandson Quinn was on the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down by a missile over Ukraine. (Reuters)

At Azrina Yakob’s house Sunday, her husband sat playing with their two small children, Arissa Raisha, 3, and Aqil Raif, 6, while surrounded by relatives.

Her brother-in-law, Zulkifli Abdul Rahman, 54, said the boy was playing with cousins and saw the wreckage of the plane on TV.

“He said, ‘Mommy went to work, but the plane exploded,’ ” Rahman said.

Azlin Yakob recalled her sister as a “joyful” woman and a star athlete who played net ball, a sport popular with Malaysians, and ran track in high school.

Azrina Yakob majored in hotel management in college, but after she got her certificate, her sister encouraged her to go to an open call for flight attendants and apply. She was hired and worked for the airline for 20 years.

The sisters had kept in daily contact and had been texting about the family’s planned reunion next week to celebrate the end of Ramadan, Azlin Yakob said, with a feast that included Azrina’s favorite noodle dish, laksa. In their final text, Azrina had also teased her sister by saying she should apply to be a contestant on a cooking show.

“It’s my only sister,” Yakob said, weeping. “We were normal sisters — we used to quarrel and then make up. But always we talked.”

She sent one last text before her sister boarded the plane. It asked, “When are you going back?”

There was no reply.

Yvonne Lim contributed to this report.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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