Sad day as Dutch mourn MH17

The bodies of 40 victims were flown to the Netherlands in an emotional, well-orchestrated ceremony.

People release white balloons in the air during a silent march in memory of the victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, on 23 July 2014. Picture: AFP.

AMSTERDAM - A church service and a silent march marked the end of a day of national mourning in the Netherlands yesterday, as the bodies of 40 victims were flown home in an emotional, well-orchestrated ceremony.

Bells sounded and flags flew at half-mast in memory of the 298 people killed when flight MH17 came down in an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, in the first national day of mourning since wartime Queen Wilhelmina died in 1962.

King Willem-Alexander and Prime Minister Mark Rutte joined dignitaries on the tarmac as two military aircraft carrying 40 plain wooden coffins landed at Eindhoven in the southern Netherlands.

After a minute's silence observed in stations, factories, offices and streets across this stunned nation, servicemen from all four branches of the Dutch military boarded the Dutch Hercules C-130 and Australian Boeing C-17 to carry the coffins to 40 waiting hearses lined up on the runway.

Relatives of some of the victims were present at the airport, but were shielded from the media glare, officials said.

A line of 40 black funeral cars took them from the airport to an airbase in the centre of the country, as thousands thronged fly-overs to pay their last respect to the victims.

Thousands of people lined the 100 km route, watching from motorway bridges as the cortege travelled from Eindhoven to the military base at Hilversum where the bodies will remain until they can be identified, a task that could take months.

As the cortege passed, drivers spontaneously stopped their cars and watched silently from the side of the motorway.

Some clapped in tribute, others threw flowers on the hearses.

The process will be repeated many times over coming days as the bodies of all the victims are brought home.

Yesterday's official day of mourning may be over, but the process ahead will be long.

It may take weeks, if not months, to identify all the 298 people who lost their lives.

Reports from Ukraine suggest that a number of bodies and body parts have remained behind at the crash site.

The Dutch foreign minister is traveling to Ukraine for the second time since the crash, in a bid to get the investigation on the ground going is not an easy task, since fighting has continued in the area where rebels shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets yesterday.

Amid US accusations that the rebels shot the civilian plane down in error with a Russian-supplied missile, an opinion poll showed an overwhelming majority of the Dutch want sanctions imposed on Moscow, even if it hurts their own economy.

The Netherlands has disproportionately large trade and financial flows with Moscow due to its position as an oil and commodities trading hub and an offshore base for companies.


The remains of victims were transported in refrigerated rail carriages from the rebel-held part of Ukraine on Tuesday.

Rutte has said that while some of the bodies may be identified immediately, it may take weeks or even months to complete the task.

With 193 of the dead from the Netherlands, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said almost every family in the country of 15 million knew someone who had been killed or their relatives.

Many of the passengers on the flight to Kuala Lumpur were tourists, but at least six were AIDS experts on their way to a conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Representatives of the many countries whose citizens died in the crash were present at the airfield, including the governor-general of Australia, Peter Cosgrove.

Their flags lined the airfield at half-mast on a cloudless day.

Trains came to a stop as the country observed a minute's silence.

No planes took off or landed at Schiphol Airport, from which the Malaysia Airlines flight departed, for 13 minutes around the time the bodies landed.

At Schiphol, airline and airport officials gathered in silence before a vast sea of flowers that has been swelling in front of the terminal building in the days since the crash, as travellers flying from the airport left their own tributes.

People gathered in front of the Royal Palace on Amsterdam's central Dam square on Wednesday evening in a silent tribute.

With so many of their countrymen dead, the Dutch have been taking a leading role in the international effort to recover and identify the bodies and investigate the cause of the crash.

Dutch authorities are leading the investigation, with extensive help from other countries.

The plane's black box flight recorders, handed over by the rebels' leader, were flown from Ukraine on a Belgian military aircraft on Tuesday to Britain, where a team of experts examined the Cockpit Voice Recorder on Wednesday, finding no evidence that it has been tampered with.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was unclear how many bodies had been transported to Kharkiv and how may have been left behind at the crash site.

Rutte, thrust into an unaccustomed spotlight, said on Tuesday the disaster had fundamentally changed the way the Dutch view Russia, urging the European Union to unite behind a firm approach to force Moscow to cooperate with the investigation.

He has spoken almost daily with US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other European leaders to coordinate the return of the bodies and discuss the investigation and the consequences.

With US intelligence pointing to the aircraft having been shot down accidentally by the Moscow-backed separatists, the Dutch mood of sorrow is now mixed with indignation.