Eastern Ukraine Fighting Delays Identifying Airline Crash Victims
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, 298 people were killed. Fighting in the area between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists continues to make it hard for rescue workers to reach the crash site, which means that four months after the shoot-down, human remains are still being recovered. Some are due to arrive in the Netherlands today. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a Dutch town where families say the wait and uncertainty, even now, about what happened to loved ones is like an open wound.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Perhaps more than any place, the tiny town of Hilversum has felt the impact of the Malaysia Airlines crash. Hilversum is about half an hour from Amsterdam by train. The community lost three whole families, including eight children.
FATHER JULIUS DRESME: Hello.
BEARDSLEY: Father Julius Dresme is the parish priest at Saint Vitus Catholic Church in Hilversum.
DRESME: Almost everybody here in Hilversum knows someone of the victims or they know someone who knows one of the victims. So they feel the pain, and they see the empty houses. It's a big tragedy. People are really wounded in the heart by it.
BEARDSLEY: The Dutch government is in charge of both the technical and criminal investigations into the disaster. But because of continued shelling between Ukrainian and rebel forces, authorities haven't been able to get to the site.
There are still no concrete answers as to who shot the plane down. The West says rebels did it with a Russian anti-aircraft missile. But Russia denies that and has accused the Ukrainian military of the crime. Dresme says the delay in identifying bodies and bringing back personal items of victims has left people frustrated and angry.
DRESME: This is a war crime, and we will never catch those who are responsible for it. And everybody knows it.
BEARDSLEY: In Amsterdam, Robbie Oehlers lost his 20-year-old cousin Daisy Oehlers and her boyfriend, Bryce Fredericks. Oehlers says he's angry at the Dutch and Ukrainian governments and Russian President Vladimir Putin because nobody seems willing to stop fighting long enough to collect the bodies and investigate what happened. Yet, he says, they can find time to negotiate a contract about supplying natural gas.
ROBBIE OEHLERS: How can you not negotiate while there's negotiations about gas delivery in Ukraine? I mean, Putin sat down with Ukraine about gasoline delivery. They signed something. So how can that happen, and how can you not take a plane away? I wonder. I wonder.
BEARDSLEY: In late October, with his cousin Daisy still unidentified, Oehlers got so frustrated that he traveled to the crash site himself to look for some sign of her.
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OEHLERS: (Speaking Dutch).
BEARDSLEY: A Dutch television crew filmed Oehlers picking through a field of twisted metal, children's toys and suitcases. For a moment, Oehlers thought he had found Daisy's suitcase, but it turned out to be someone else's.
OEHLERS: That's when I started looking around - looking for more. And then I found under the landing gear, in between a chair, some bones and clothes of a person that probably fell down underneath the landing gear. That's when I got angry, you know? Why is it still here?
BEARDSLEY: Oehlers says European sanctions against Russia, depriving it of Dutch flowers, as he puts it, are a joke. And he feels that Putin is making a mockery of Europe. The Dutch feel a sense of powerlessness as they've been thrust into the middle of this geopolitical conflict. Dutch columnist Bas Heijne says the accident and its consequences are weighing heavily on this small nation. The Netherlands was a major trade partner with Russia. And last year the two countries celebrated their mutual friendship. The crash changed all that.
BAS HEIJNE: We are kind of mixed about what to do now. And I think the boycotts are supported mainly, but I think if they're going on too long, there will be some voices of dissent. Up until now that hasn't happened because of the piety for the victims.
BEARDSLEY: Only in the last couple weeks have Dutch investigators been able to get to the crash site in eastern Ukraine and recover some of the large pieces of the plane, which are now on their way to the Netherlands. And Robbie Oehlers's cousin Daisy was finally identified. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.