Voice of victims’ families yet to emerge in Holland after Malaysia Airlines crash

People paid their respects to the victims of the downed Malaysia Airway Flight MH17 during mass at St. Bavo Cathedral in Haarlem Sunday. (Reuters)

If the families of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 victims have seemed mostly absent from the public discussion in the tense aftermath of Thursday’s crash, there’s good reason: Many of them have been kept behind military police guard at a hotel, with government and airline officials handling their needs.

“They are now in the safe hands of the government and Malaysia Airlines,” said Marianne de Bie, a spokeswoman for Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

Their silence increasingly stood out by Sunday, as the situation continued to unravel at the crash site in Ukraine and geopolitical tensions surged. Public outrage in Holland, initially muted, has been stoked by news that foreign investigators were prevented from reaching the wreckage and that some of the bodies of the 298 victims — which include 192 Dutch citizens — were removed without permission. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte struck an angrier tone Saturday when he talked about how a commercial airliner came to be targeted by a missile. That seemed to capture the darkening mood of people here.

“I was happy with that, his anger,” said Vanessa Knezevic, who lives outside Rotterdam and was waiting Sunday to catch a flight at the Amsterdam airport.

The lack of a clear voice for the victims contrasts with what happened after the last Malaysia Airlines disaster, four months ago, when Beijing-bound Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean.

In that case, in which many of the 239 people aboard were Chinese, families gathered at a hotel outside Beijing. Within three days, the families were criticizing how the search was being handled. Water bottles were thrown at one government news conference. A petition demanding answers gathered the support of more than 100 families. Leaders appeared to feel pressured by the emotional outpouring.

In Amsterdam, just hours after Thursday’s crash, victims’ families were taken to the Steigenberger Airport Hotel, a modern facility just beyond the Schiphol airport’s runways. The location was an open secret. Some journalists were booked at the hotel, too.

But even that first night, the hotel was on lockdown. Posted outside the glass-walled front entrance were two officers from the Dutch military police — the same branch that guards the borders and the main airport, recognizable by their blue berets and bulky bulletproof vests. Another officer stood by a side entrance. They questioned anyone who approached, demanding to see hotel key cards and following guests to the registration desk when they checked in.

A cameraman with Al Jazeera was stopped by a police officer Saturday as he unloaded his gear from a taxi in the driveway. When the cameraman said he was a journalist, the officer asked to see his passport and questioned why he was staying at the hotel.

“Listen, we’re not going to talk to the families,” the cameraman responded. “We just want a place to sleep tonight.”

The officer relented.

Two more police officers were posted in the lobby, restricting access down a far hallway.

Housing the victims’ families in one location has advantages but requires a balancing of needs, said Berthold Gersons, a psychiatry professor at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in trauma care.

The families want information about what happened to their loved ones, so they come to the airport and hope to find quick access to officials, Gersons said. But it’s also important for families to be surrounded by friends and a community that knows them well. A hotel is a foreign place. It might be difficult to sleep. They are in a period of “acute bereavement,” he said. Yet, having the families in a central location makes it easier to provide counseling.

“The situation is complicated,” Gersons said.

At the hotel, staff members with “caretaker” badges walked the halls. A handful of others wore blue vests reading “special assistance team.” A yellow airport ambulance was parked outside, just in case. Everyone else moving through the lobby looked like an airplane worker — the seafoam green uniforms of Korean Air flight attendants, the drab green jumpsuits of New Zealand’s military — or tourists in shorts and T-shirts. The victims’ families, wherever they were, blended in.

When they left the hotel in a group, they boarded a tour bus, two police motorcycles escorting them down the road.

Guda Mastenbroek, 80, who lives more than an hour outside Amsterdam, was among the family members who stayed at the hotel. Her daughter Tina Mastenbroek, along with her son-in-law Erik van Heijningen and grandson Zeger van Heijningen, 17, were killed in the crash.

The counselors and airplane officials treated her “very well,” she said, speaking at a church service Saturday in Hilversum, where her daughter lived. “We appreciate it.”

The care has been managed by the Dutch government, said de Bie, the airport spokeswoman. It is not out of the ordinary, except in its scale.

“This is about the same way we handle any big emergency at our airport,” she said. “But this was an enormous one.”

On Monday, the victims’ families were scheduled to meet with Dutch government officials to talk about the disaster, de Bie said. The families will have an opportunity to ask questions.

The meeting will be closed to the public.

Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.
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