The Netherlands | Familiar Foe

The country is spearheading a head-on clash between Europe and Russia.

01 November 2014
Of the 298 who perished on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, 196 were Dutch nationals.
Phil Nijhuis / AP Photo
Of the 298 who perished on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, 196 were Dutch nationals.
Phil Nijhuis / AP Photo

AS THE SUN SET on the calm summer evening of 22 July, a line of forty funeral coaches slowly rolled out from the airport at Eindhoven, a city in the south of the Netherlands. Inside each of the charcoal-coloured vehicles was a wooden coffin containing the remains of a victim of flight MH17, which had crashed five days earlier in eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. None of the 283 passengers and 15 crew members survived. Of the victims, 196 were Dutch nationals, making the Netherlands the country most afflicted by the disaster. A crowd of mourners had flocked to the airport to witness the repatriation of this first group of the deceased.

In the minds of large numbers of the Dutch public, there is little doubt that Russia is at least partly to blame for the deaths of their compatriots. Almost immediately after the crash, various sources claimed the flight was brought down by a surface-to-air missile of Russian origin, launched by separatists in the Donbas region. Russia denies any link with the insurgents, and, hampered by the fighting in the area, investigators have been unable to secure evidence that confirms this reading of events. A recent report by the Dutch Safety Board, which has been charged with investigating the incident, carefully avoided the word “missile,” but noted that the aircraft was “penetrated by a large number of high energy objects,” and that “there are no indications that the MH17 crash was caused by a technical fault or by actions of the crew.”

As the procession made its way to a military base where the agonising task of identifying the victims began, it passed even larger crowds of onlookers. Some applauded cautiously as the cars drove by. Others threw flowers, and a few sobbed. It was a rare expression of collective grief in a country not known for public displays of emotion. “This is the only thing I can do to demonstrate my sympathy for the victim’s families,” Sini Reijm, a stout retiree with short blond hair, told me. I asked whether she shared the anger towards Russia. “It is the politicians at the top who are responsible,” she responded, “but you cannot blame an entire country.” Johan Mammen, a warehouse worker also standing at the roadside, accused Russia of murder. “This is a terrible consequence of a war that Russia is obviously fuelling,” he said.

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    Casper Thomas Casper Thomas is a staff writer at De Groene Amsterdammer, a weekly on politics and culture published in the Netherlands since 1877. He served as the South Asia correspondent for this publication between 2012 and 2013.

    Keywords: Ukraine Russia Netherlands MH17 crash Dutch nationals