One year ago today I was relaxing in the sun at a party when the atmosphere suddenly changed. Somehow the news filtered through that a plane flying from Schiphol had crashed in Eastern Ukraine. At first it seemed like a horrific coincidence that this had happened precisely in a region where there was already so much chaos, but it soon became clear that this was a crime of unbelievable callousness. Separatist rebels had shot down an aircraft with 298 people on board. With God knows what on their minds, they decided that this plane flying at cruising altitude was clearly a Ukrainian military transport. Firing at their target on a complete guess, their missile’s shrapnel tore MH17 apart. Ukrainian villagers below had to endure the horrific sight of bodies plummeting into their fields and houses.
The images of the crash site are some of the most upsetting that have been seen after such a disaster. Many of those on board were families going on holiday, and the pictures of travel guides, summer clothes and sunscreen bottles, somehow intact after falling for 10 kilometers, emphasised the unfairness of it all. Plenty of the victims probably had no real idea who was fighting, or why there were missiles ready below them. The men who killed them probably had no idea that they were shooting at a plane full of happy people on holiday. It was utterly pointless, a murder of unbearable negligence, ruthlessness, and stupidity.
In the Netherlands the shock and anger was immense. As many have pointed out, the number of victims from such a small country meant that almost everyone knew someone who was affected in some way. Then those affected had to watch for days as men with guns held up the recovery to cover their guilt, leaving the victims in the burning sun. When the first plane carrying the remains landed back in the Netherlands, church bells rang out across the country, and people joined together in genuine grief. One year later, the wounds are still raw.
Last July though I was sure that some good would come out of evil. I truly believed that this would be such a blow to the separatists’ Russian backers that they would have to retreat. Supporting the militias who downed MH17 would be so toxic for Putin that he would have to cut off the weapons, cut down the volunteers, and let the conflict wind down.
And what has changed since then? Nothing. Nothing except the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian civilians. Weeks later the Russian army actually increased their presence in Eastern Ukraine, taking their tanks and missiles with them. They pushed the Ukrainian army back, killing hundreds, and forced a ceasefire that allowed a steady trickle of deaths for months until the conflict flared up again. Thousands of people have been killed since July 17, not just in battle, but in the vicious, senseless shelling of cities like Donetsk.
The deaths of 298 innocents have been ‘honoured’ by the killing of more innocents, and a desperate scramble to escape guilt. Their murder has brought no change, no realisation, no remorse on the part of those who fight this pointless war ‘to protect’ a voiceless and suffering population. Over the last year as the Dutch – and Malaysians, and Australians, and others – mourn the absences in their lives, Eastern Ukraine has only become more entrenched in hatred and fear of those on the other side of the front line. Many more years may go by until the victims find justice, and the people of the Donbass find peace.