Why us? Malaysians wonder after two planes go down

It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to the airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane’s last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.

For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered. To this day, the costly search for the jet that diverted from its flight path and vanished without a trace goes on in the Southern Indian Ocean. The country’s distrust of its government has lingered. Angry relatives of victims campaign for answers. Billboards over the airport road still read “Pray for Flight 370.”

Then, Flight 17 was struck from the air over eastern Ukraine on Thursday — likely by a surface-to-air missile. It was “a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia,” as Prime Minister Najib Razak put it. As the news spread in the culturally diverse but predominantly Muslim country of 30 million, there was shock, but also disbelief.

When Zarina Abd Rahim first heard the news, she was breaking her fast for the holy month of Ramadan with a bowl of chicken and rice with her family. Her husband first dismissed it as a prank on Facebook.

“He said, ‘It cannot be,’ ” she recalled Friday. “But it was true.”

As news spread of Flight MH17 being shot down, people at a Malaysian airport were shocked that Malaysia Airlines had been struck by disaster so soon after the loss of another plane. (Reuters)

The nurse and mother of two wept as she thought of the children who had died when the plane was ripped out of the sky as it made its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

“Why us?” Abd Rahim said. “Why is God stressing us in this way?”

There were no easy answers, but officials struggled to provide them Friday, speaking in the same ballroom of the blingy yet depressing airport hotel where they had long briefed the media after the Flight 370 disappearance.

The journalists were still restive from overwork, and the officials were still somber. Nothing had changed, except the face of Malaysia’s transportation minister. Late last month, Hishammuddin Hussein, who became internationally known when he ran the Flight 370 briefings during the height of the world’s interest with the mystery, was replaced by Liow Tiong Lai, a low-key former health minister. (Hussein is still the prime minister’s cousin, though.)

Critics were watching closely to see whether the government would perform better than last time, when it was accused of mishandling the investigation and not keeping families informed. Worse, it told families that their loved ones were likely dead about 18 days after the plane’s disappearance — in an officious text.

Bridget Walsh, a senior research associate with National Taiwan University, said the prime minister and his staff had a much better crisis center now that could brief reporters in the wee hours of the morning Malaysia time as the situation unfolded. But some of the new victims’ families were still saying they hadn’t heard enough from the government.

Meanwhile, those on social media were posting that they were feeling a sense of deja vu. Radio stations abandoned their upbeat songs in favor of slower, somber fare, as they had after Flight 370 had disappeared.

Aviation history is littered with civilian planes that were shot from the sky, intentionally or not, by military weapons. Malaysia Flight 17 was cruising at 33,000 feet, more than half a mile higher than Mt. Everest, when a missile hit it July 17. And the missile’s range is believed to be more than twice that high.

“When I heard, I just felt numb,” said Latt Shariman Abdullah, 45, an activist. “This shows how horrible the world is.”

In March, Abdullah helped organize one of the largest candlelight vigils in honor of the Flight 370 victims at the Curve, a suburban shopping mall at Petaling Jaya outside Kuala Lumpur. On Friday, he and his friends returned to the same open-air courtyard in the mall for another vigil, this one in honor of the Flight 17 victims.

They sat on the concrete piazza, listened to a Buddhist monk chant and lit votive candles that were arranged to spell out “Pray for MH17.” Abdullah and one of his co-organizers, a well-known Kuala Lumpur singer named Reshmonu, said they were moved to host a vigil for the second time to give people a chance to vent their feelings over the lingering case of Flight 370 and Thursday’s Flight 17 tragedy. And even that may not be enough.

“We still haven’t had closure,” Reshmonu said. “And now this has happened. What do you do with that?”

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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