It should have been a time for celebration in the predominately Muslim country of Malaysia, as families prepare for festivities to mark the end of the Ramadan fasting period. Instead the country is in shock from a second air tragedy in four months.
In Kuala Lumpur International Airport, signs directed relatives and friends of passengers on board Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) Flight 17, shot down on July 17 over Ukraine, to the Anjung Tinjau viewing gallery. In March, families here clamored for information on the fate of Flight 370, which vanished without trace. This time, with no hope of survivors, only a handful came to confirm their relatives were on the fated flight.
Nuraini Mohd Noor sobbed at the loss of her sister Nurahimah, who was flying home to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr in late July, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, known locally as Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Nurahimah, a 67-year-old Geneva resident, had planned a six-week vacation with her family, her first trip home in five years.
“She was on transit in Amsterdam before returning for Hari Raya,” Nuraini said. Family members in Geneva confirmed Nurahimah was on the flight, she said.
Nurahimah and 297 others flying from the Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur were killed after a missile destroyed the Boeing Co. 777 over war-torn Ukraine, within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the Russian border. Ukraine’s government blamed rebels for the attack. In March, Malaysian Air Flight 370 disappeared en route for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, with 239 passengers and crew on board, sparking the world’s longest search for a missing jetliner in modern aviation history. That plane hasn’t been found.
In an outburst of grief in Malaysia on social networks, many linked the two tragedies.
“My tears still pouring for hubby #MH370 & now my dear friends #MH17 #GodBless #PrayForMH370 #PrayForMH17,” wrote Intan Maizura Othaman on her Twitter feed. Intan, whose husband was a crew member of Flight 370, gave birth to a boy more than two months after the plane disappeared.
For the relatives of passengers, this time is different. Four months ago, there were so many families at the airport that it was difficult to walk through the departure lounge to the waiting area set aside for their use. Many had been flown in from China, where most of the passengers were from. They waited each day for news of the plane, some living in hope that it would somehow be found with survivors. This time, the only hope for relatives is that their loved ones weren’t on board.
Outside the area reserved for families, a woman who asked to be identified only as Umi said her cousin Wan Amran Wan Hussin was one of the pilots. The Star newspaper in Malaysia also identified Amran as a pilot on the flight, citing his nephew.
“If it dropped into the ocean, that’s different,” Umi told reporters. “But this one, it fell onto the ground, and it was bombed and exploded before falling to the ground. Chances of survival, zero.” She said Amran’s wife, who has two sons, 10 and 8 years old, was still in a state of disbelief.
Among those at the airport was Siti Dina, who said her 45-year-old daughter was traveling with her Dutch husband to Melbourne, with a transit in Kuala Lumpur. With them were their three children, 15, 12, and 8 years old.
“I was shocked,” Siti said as she arrived at the airport. “I got the news at 12:30 -- my friend called up. That’s why I’m coming now to check on the information, before I know what to do next.”
More than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 31 million population are Muslim and Eid is their biggest celebration of the year. In the final days of Ramadan, the nation’s shopping malls and bazaars are packed as people buy clothes or material for traditional outfits and purchase everything from pineapple tarts to flower arrangements as they prepare to welcome visiting relatives, some returning from abroad for the holiday.
Flight 17 carried 283 passengers and 15 crew members, with at least 189 Dutch travelers making up the biggest national group, according to a tally by Malaysian Air. There were 44 Malaysians on board, including crew, the airline said, with passengers from Australia, Indonesia, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand.
Cor Pan, whose Facebook page listed his home as the northern Dutch town of Volendam, posted a photo of the plane as he was boarding, adding the line: “Mocht hij verdwijnen, zo ziet hij d’r uit,” or “in case it disappears, this is how it looks.”
Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Europe’s largest energy company, said three of its employees were on board.
Ariza Ghazalee, her husband and four children were among those on the flight, Malaysia’s New Straits Times reported, citing her mother Jamilah Noriah Abang Anuar. Ariza’s last posting on her Facebook page was a picture of 14 pieces of luggage at the airport.
Australian Kaylene Mann, whose brother was on Flight 370, learned that her stepdaughter was on the plane shot down over Ukraine, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
Many passengers on board Flight 17 were en route to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, said Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, the meeting’s co-chair. Among them was Joep Lange, president of the International AIDS Society from 2002 to 2004 and a former chief of clinical research and drug development at the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS.
“I have no words really to express my sadness,” Barre-Sinoussi, who was awarded a Nobel prize in 2008 for discovering HIV, told reporters in Canberra attending a National Press Club event. “I feel totally devastated.”
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Irish rock star Bob Geldof are among thousands of public figures, AIDS researchers and people living with HIV expected to attend the event. Among those confirmed killed were Glenn Thomas, a Geneva-based spokesman for the WHO, said Rachel Baggaley, coordinator of the UN agency’s HIV prevention program, who arrived in Melbourne yesterday.
“We are in shock,” Baggaley said by telephone. “It’s casting a shadow over the whole thing.”
Norman Fowler, a former U.K. Health Secretary who is attending the conference, said the news of the attack was “absolutely horrific and terrible.”
As well as “the loss to those in the HIV community there’s of course an even greater loss of all those who have been affected by it,” he said. “I think it would be the view of every nation that the perpetrators of this crime are discovered and are brought to justice.”
To contact the reporters on this story: David Tweed in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org; Choong En Han in Kuala Lumpur at email@example.com; Chong Pooi Koon in Kuala Lumpur at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Adam Majendie Stephanie Phang