For relatives of MH17 dead, Russian invasion of Ukraine rekindles painful memories

Muzliza Mustafa and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
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Mohamed Salleh, whose daughter, Malaysia Airlines flight attendant Nur Shazana, was one of the 298 killed when flight MH17 crashed after being shot down in eastern Ukraine, touches her coffin during a burial ceremony in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 22, 2014. [Mohd Rasfan/AFP]


Soldiers carry a coffin with the remains of one of the Malaysian victims in the downing of flight MH17, from the cargo hold of another jet after its arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Aug. 22, 2014. [AFP]


Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis (right) and other trial judges and lawyers view the reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 at the Gilze-Rijen Air Base, Netherlands, May 26, 2021. [Peter Dejong/Pool/AP]


A shoe lies near mounds of wreckage from flight MH17, two days after it crashed in a sunflower field in eastern Ukraine, July 19, 2014. [Dominique Faget/AFP]

Relatives of Malaysians who died aboard an airliner shot down over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists eight years ago are marking the anniversary with renewed bitterness, as the region where the tragedy occurred is now engulfed in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Ammar Syarif said Russia's invasion of the neighboring country brought back feelings of disbelief connected with the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, on July 17, 2014.

His father, Malaysia Airlines flight supervisor Mohd Ghafar Abu Bakar, was among the 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers aboard the doomed Boeing 777.

“They have not learned anything, have they? All these hostilities, fights, will only bring misery to the people,” Ammar said.

“What happened to MH17 might happen again. Different nations, different people, maybe. But I hope not,” Ammar told BenarNews. “I cannot blame Russia alone, Ukraine has a part in this too. This would not happen if there is no conflict between the two nations.”

Flight MH17 had left from Amsterdam and was bound for Kuala Lumpur when a missile brought down the airliner, which crashed in a sunflower field in a village in the Donetsk region.

Malaysia Airlines flight supervisor Mohd Ghafar Abu Bakar died when a Russian-made missile struck flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. [Photo courtesy his family]

Noraini Mohd Noor, who lost her sister, Rahimah Mohd Noor, expressed similar concerns.

“Now, with the war between Russia and Ukraine, the possibility of another tragedy like MH17 is there,” she told BenarNews.

The pain of both families deepened when they got their loved ones’ belongings that were recovered from the crash site.

“We received the box about a year after the tragedy, I think. It contained my father’s name tag, his shirt and his safety book among others,” Ammar said.

“I recognized the shirt as we always watched what he packed for his trip. Until today, the box is still unpacked. My mother did not want to open it. I respect her wishes.”

Noraini said her sister had packed gifts for family members as she planned to spend three months in Malaysia instead of her normal visit of two weeks.

“After not seeing us for six years, she packed her luggage with souvenirs for us – lots of it was clothing,” she said. “But when it was returned to the family, we decided not to keep anything. We let her husband and her two children keep it all, it was our family decision.

“She told me she wanted to fix our mother’s home, she wanted to give some donations to orphans and wanted to spend more time with us,” she said.

Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right), joined by Kees Klompenhouwer, who served as the Dutch ambassador to Ukraine, kneel at a flower memorial for MH17 victims at the Netherlands Embassy in Kyiv, July 21, 2014. [AFP/Presidential Press-Service/Mykhaylo Markiv]

Rahimah, a government officer attached with Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, was sent to the Geneva office three decades earlier where she met and married her husband and had two children. Noraini said she was close to her sister.

“We talked over the phone four times a week. Every conversation could last for hours. She loved talking about her family, her time in Geneva, and I loved listening to her,” Noraini said.

“And yes, she finally came home, for good, when they brought her lifeless body to be buried at our hometown in Ipoh, Perak.”

Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis (second from right) and other judges listen to testimony from a woman who lost her father and stepmother when flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine, Sept. 6, 2021. [Peter Dejong/AP]

Court actions

In June, testimony in the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian ended after a two-year trial. The four are linked to a missile which was fired from a launcher trucked into Ukraine and then returned to its military base in Russia after the missile brought down MH17.

Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the verdict could be delivered in late November at the earliest, according to media reports.

In 2018, a Dutch-led international criminal investigation officially concluded that the missile had originated from a Russian anti-aircraft military unit.

Members of a joint investigation team present the preliminary results of the criminal investigation into the downing of flight MH17, in Nieuwegein, Netherlands, Sept. 28, 2016. [Emmanuel Dunhand/AFP]

Earlier this year, Australia and the Netherlands “initiated legal proceedings against the Russian Federation in the International Civil Aviation Organization.”

In a news release on March 14, the Australian government said Russia refused to negotiate with the two nations after withdrawing from talks in October 2020.

“The Russian Federation’s refusal to take responsibility for its role in the downing of Flight MH17 is unacceptable and the Australian government has always said that it will not exclude any legal options in our pursuit of justice,” the statement said.

“While we cannot take away the grief of those whose loved ones died as a result of Russia’s actions, the Australian government will pursue every available avenue to ensure Russia is held to account so that this horrific act never happens again.”

Kuala Lumpur’s state-run news agency, Bernama, reported that Malaysia had agreed to participate with Australia and the Netherlands.

“I am fine with our decision to take part in the lawsuit,” Ammar said of the legal action.

Noriani, meanwhile, said she expected little from Moscow, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and whose forces have since seized large areas of the Donbas, according to news reports.

“I know they [Russia] will never admit that they did it. What else can we do when people do not admit that they have done wrong? Nothing. I can do nothing. You can do nothing,” she said.

Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow with Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, a think-tank in Selangor, questioned Malaysia’s participation in the legal proceeding because it was not involved in those negotiations with Russia.

“The court action was a result of Russia’s decision to stop negotiating. Malaysia was not part of it. I do not think it was wise for us to be part of the legal action now,” he told BenarNews.

The Malaysian government needs to be neutral, Azmi said.

“The MH17 issue has been used as geopolitical tools by nations toward Russia and by Russia toward others, so Malaysia has been doing its best to not be tangled in this geopolitical game,” he said. “We need to take a neutral position until we get concrete proof that Russia is involved directly in the MH17 issues and take the same stand with the Russia-Ukraine war – that is to be as neutral as possible.”

On Sunday, Noriani and her family will focus on Rahimah.

“We never fail to do something special for her every year. Our siblings will gather, we will do special prayers, recite special duas for her,” she said.

Malaysians gather at a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall for a candle-light vigil for the MH17 victims, July 18, 2014. [Nicolas Asfouri/AFP]




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