President demands justice for the 298 killed when their plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine three years ago.
When he walked onto the crash site, Robby Oehlers was hit by grief and the smell of kerosene. “[The smell] was still so penetrating, it made my eyes burn,” Oehlers says.
He had a list of items that his cousin Daisy and her boyfriend Bryce had brought with them. “They had travelled with a light blue suitcase, which was one of the first things I saw. I took a picture and sent it home, but it wasn’t theirs.”
Three months before, on July 17, 2014, Daisy, 20, and Bryce, 23, had boarded flight MH17 on their way to a holiday in Bali. But about three hours into the flight from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Boeing 777 was hit by what an international team of investigators have said was a surface-to-air BUK missile launched from an area in eastern Ukraine that, at the time, was controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
The Malaysia Airlines aeroplane disintegrated in the sky and there were no survivors among the 298 passengers and staff.
Oehlers, a singer from the Netherlands, had grown impatient in the months after the downing of the flight. When, in October, Daisy’s remains still had not been identified, he decided to take matters into his own hands and visit the crash site in hopes of finding a trace of his disappeared relative.
“On television, I had seen there was still a lot of stuff lying around at the crash site. Not just wreckage, but personal belongings like passports, too. I thought if that stuff hasn’t been picked up, they just haven’t looked hard enough – she must still be lying there among the debris,” he told Al Jazeera in December 2014.
For some time, Oehlers surveyed the field. “I recognised the fabric that had covered the seats and I could see bones. I saw a toy with a name written on it in children’s lettering and a pair of shoes near the cockpit,” he says. “There were so many things lying around there. I thought, ‘How dare they leave this here for so long?'”
Initial recovery efforts for MH17 were hampered by the fact that the plane’s wreckage fell down scattered across a rural part of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists were at war with Ukraine’s armed forces. It took 24 hours for the first international responders, a team of observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to arrive at the scene. Human remains lay on farm fields for days, exposed to Ukraine’s hot summer temperatures.
With 196 victims coming from the Netherlands, the small European country was hit hardest by the tragedy. Forty-two victims were of Malaysian nationality, and 27 Australians lost their lives.
Repatriation got under way on July 23, when the bodies of 40 victims were flown back to the Netherlands. On May 2, 2015, the Dutch government announced the repatriation mission had been concluded. But when a Dutch journalist found a piece of bone on the crash site that turned out to belong to one of the victims in January 2017, victims’ relatives called for another search of the site where the debris had come down.
From the outset, Russia has denied any involvement. They initially claimed that flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet and later said that if a missile was responsible for the downing of the plane, it would have been launched from Ukraine-controlled territory.
A criminal investigation has been carried out by a joint investigation team (JIT) set up by the Netherlands – which plays a coordinating role – Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine. But three years after the crash, not a single suspect has been named – and questions have been raised about whether a trial will ever take place at all.
Oehlers is pessimistic about the prospect of seeing someone prosecuted for the death of his cousin. “[The chance of it happening is] very small,” he says. “I think bigger political interests will outweigh those 298 victims.”
On September 28, 2016, the JIT released a report which claimed investigators had obtained “irrefutable evidence” to establish that the plane had indeed been shot down by a BUK missile from an agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi, at the time controlled by pro-Russian fighters. They also announced they had identified about 100 people who could be linked to the downing of the plane, or the transport of the responsible launcher.
Further investigation of these persons is currently under way, but it is unknown when the prosecutors will be able to name potential culprits.
“There is no planning, there is no timeline,” JIT spokesperson Wim de Bruin tells Al Jazeera. “We keep repeating that this process will take a long time.”
On July 5, the Dutch government announced that the five countries forming part of the JIT agreed to let prosecution and sentencing take place in the Netherlands. The option of setting up a special United Nations tribunal was vetoed by Russia two years ago.
The announcement did not go into what the chances of a trial actually taking place are. “The decision [to hold a trial in the Netherlands] wouldn’t have been made if there wasn’t the conviction that [the investigation] would lead to a trial,” de Bruin says. He concedes that a trial might happen in the absence of suspects.
For Dutch member of parliament Pieter Omtzigt the investigation is taking “too long”. He suspects Russia and Ukraine have deliberately slowed the process down by withholding information – most notably radar imagery.
“As a politician, I can’t and won’t look into the work of the independent judiciary branch, but it seems very apparent that some countries didn’t cooperate with us,” Omtzigt tells Al Jazeera.
Ukraine never handed over primary radar data, claiming that its installations were broken or down for maintenance at the time. “That’s not very credible when you’re at war, to turn off all radar at the same time,” Omtzigt says. Russia failed to produce primary radar imagery until two days before the release of the JIT’s September 2016 report – and even then it was only half of what they earlier reported they had.
“There’s a life before July 17, 2014, and a life after July 17, 2014. That was the case for us back then and it’s still the case now,” says Evert van Zijtveld, the Dutch president of the foundation for relatives of MH17 victims.
Van Zijtveld’s old life ended that day not long after 5pm, when he got home from the last day of work before he and his wife would go on vacation. In the morning, he had taken his two children Frederique, 19, and Robert-Jan, 18, as well as his parents-in-law to Schiphol airport. Frederique had recently graduated from high school and Robert-Jan was about to enter his final year of high school – their grandparents wanted to reward them for their achievements with a vacation in Indonesia.
“When I got home, I received a phone call from a relative who asked me what airplane my children and in-laws had been in. He told me a plane had gone missing, and that’s when I knew,” van Zijtveld tells Al Jazeera.
“It’s three years ago, for everybody else that’s a very long time,” he says. “But for us, it’s like it happened yesterday. Time stopped on July 17, 2014.”
It's very simple: our loved ones have been murdered and the killers are walking free somewhere in the world. They have to be arrested, they have to appear in a court of law and they have to be punished
For van Zijtveld, the first few months after the downing of the plane felt like he was living in a film, but they were only the first part of a harrowing journey for him and his wife, Grace. After Frederique and Robert-Jan were buried, remains belonging to them were identified on more than one occasion.
Van Zijtveld and his wife opened the grave once, but decided against it when more remains were found. Instead, they cremated them and scattered the ashes on the ground of the national monument which will be inaugurated on the third anniversary of the crash: a memorial forest with 298 trees planted in the shape of a ribbon.
Van Zijtveld visited the military airbase in Gilze-Rijen where wreckage of the Boeing has been reassembled for the investigation. The victims’ relatives foundation he heads waged a lengthy battle to get access to security camera footage of the victims captured at Schiphol airport – the last available moving images of their loved ones. And van Zijtveld voraciously researches what is being written and said about the crash.
“Everything that has to do with what happened to MH17 is important to me, it doesn’t matter what,” he says.
Amid the many official reports, deliberate misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories – one of which asserted the CIA had planted a bomb on the aircraft – circulating online, a wealth of research has been published by Bellingcat, a website by “citizen investigative journalists” who rely on publicly available information such as YouTube videos and Google Maps for their reporting.
The website is headed by Eliot Higgins, who was formerly known under his alias, Brown Moses, and has a track record of breaking news stories on the Syrian conflict through his open-source investigations.
“Very quickly after the event people started digging stuff out,” he tells Al Jazeera. “There’s so much material compared to Syria, because pretty much anyone can post what they like – there was just so much to find.”
Bellingcat has published a series of reports in which the citizen journalists claim to have identified the exact BUK missile launcher that shot down the plane, the route by which it had been transported from Russia and the exact wheat field from which the missile had been fired – a finding which was vindicated by the September 2016 JIT report.
Criticism – not least by Russian media – has left Higgins and his team unperturbed and, in January 2016, the collective went as far as handing a list with the names of about 20 Russian soldiers who they thought were involved in the downing of the plane to prosecutors in the Netherlands.
Higgins admits to having felt frustrated early on about the fact that the JIT still has not announced any names of suspects, but he has since come round. “We’ve come to realise that they get one chance to get this right,” he says.
Van Zijtveld trusts that investigators are doing everything in their power to gather the evidence necessary to convict the perpetrators of the downing of flight MH17, but stresses that he wants to keep seeing progress. “We think it’s taking a long time and we’ve said that as the relatives of the victims we have no patience for the Dutch public prosecution or the JIT countries. They need to show us they are taking steps, otherwise we will get restless,” he says. “And they’ve showed us that.”
International politics, van Zijtveld continues, should be no excuse for slowing down the search for the truth: “It’s very simple: our loved ones have been murdered and the killers are walking free somewhere in the world. They have to be arrested, they have to appear in a court of law and they have to be punished.”
Looking back on his trip to eastern Ukraine nearly three years on, Oehlers is glad that he went. Like van Zijtveld, Oehlers still follows the news on MH17 closely – he spends about two hours a day gathering information online in hopes of finding answers about what happened to his cousin.
“If I wouldn’t have gone myself, I would have been completely lost in what everybody is saying online, on Twitter and in the investigations. I might have gone in the direction of [believing] conspiracy theories,” he says.
“Now, because I’ve seen the crash site myself, at least there are some things I can rule out.”
In Ukraine, Oehlers never did find anything that belonged to Daisy or Bryce. But a day before he left eastern Ukraine he received a phone call from back home. Daisy had been identified by her hip bone.