Nearly 200 Dutch people died when Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. Four years on, the relatives have to battle Russian disinformation, as well as their own emotions.
“We thought it was a beautiful place for this,” said Hans de Borst.
His hands clasped together on his knees, he was sitting on a simple wooden bench in a small public garden in The Hague, the Dutch administrative capital.
The reason why he helped place the bench here last year is because it is within sight of an elegant villa housing Russia’s embassy to the Netherlands.
On the bench’s crossbar is a small brass plate inscribed with these words: “Waiting for responsibility and full clarity. In loving memory of all 298 passengers and crew of Malaysia Airlines MH17, July 17th 2014”.
The Boeing 777 airliner was flying from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, that day, when it was blown out of the sky over eastern Ukraine by a Russian missile. More than two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch nationals, and among them was de Borst’s then-17-year-old daughter, Elsemiek.
In proportion to its population, the Netherlands suffered a heavier loss of life that day than the United States did on 9/11. But while the attacks on New York and Washington 17 years ago had a cataclysmic effect, leading the U.S. to invade two countries and deploy troops worldwide in its “war on terror,” the most striking thing about the Netherlands’ reaction has been the lack of it.
Four years later, despite an exhaustive investigation that has uncovered compelling evidence of Russia’s complicity, the Dutch authorities have still not been able to bring anyone to justice. The government imposed limited sanctions on Russia in the immediate aftermath, in conjunction with the European Union (EU). But there has been no other punishment — even after The Hague formally accused Moscow of providing the Buk surface-to-air missile that brought the plane down, to which the Kremlin responded with the equivalent of a defiant shrug.
It is partly a story of what you could call the Dutch national character, which emphasizes reserve and due process over outward emotion and impulse. It’s partly a story of economic priorities and the Netherlands’ need for Russia’s trade and energy. But it is also a case study in Russian disinformation — because of the drip-drip of falsehoods trickled out by Kremlin officials and the media outlets they control, casting blame everywhere but Moscow.
The day the bodies of the MH17 passengers (including citizens of other countries) were brought back to the Netherlands is etched in Hans de Borst’s memory. “I remember watching like it was a movie,” he told me.
“All of the Malaysian families started acting crazy, crying and throwing themselves down on the ground and I was annoyed because of the crying people. I thought, ‘What are you doing? Just be normal,’” he said.
“And then I thought, ‘Oh yeah, Elsemiek is in one of those boxes.’ But I still didn’t cry.”
I listened intrigued. Here was this gentle man, who had lost his only daughter, the person he most cherished in life, describing how he had almost recoiled from the way other people were dealing with the same depth of loss. But then de Borst continued.
“I was also annoyed maybe that I couldn’t [cry]. That’s to do with our character. We are Dutch and it’s not something the Dutch do. But the people who are lying on the floor crying are not more sad than I am.”
I vividly remember that day too, as I waited with other journalists for the military aircraft carrying the remains from the crash site to touch down at a Dutch airbase.
There was silence as the planes came into view. A lone trumpeter played the haunting notes of the Last Post. Flags representing the 10 countries of the passengers and crew on board billowed at half-mast above our heads.
Many of the coffins carried out of the planes and past the grieving crowd were infant-sized. More than 80 of the passengers on MH17 were children.
A week later, I interviewed the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte for the BBC. He vowed that whoever was responsible for firing the missile would not “escape justice.”
But what I remember most of all was Rutte’s calm, detached tone. It felt incongruous to me so soon after this moment of unspeakable national horror—an event which, I realized, had consumed me too. As soon as the Prime Minister had answered my last question, I walked out of the camera shot, worried I was going to cry.
As journalists, it is axiomatic that we should maintain professional distance from the stories we cover. It was not as if, I told myself, I knew any of the passengers. I felt as if I was trespassing on the grief of those who did.
I was conscious of the stares of a waiting Dutch television crew.
Ever since I had first got to Schiphol airport on July 17, 2014 to follow up on reports of MH17 being shot down, covering the fallout had taken over my waking hours. I remember people dashing inside the airport, through crowds of unassuming tourists, frantically looking for someone with information about relatives they had waved off just a few hours earlier.
In the following days, we visited neighborhoods where whole families would never be coming home, and filmed inside churches filled with candles and teddy bears clutching red hearts.
Prime Minister Rutte came over to the window and awkwardly extended his arm over my shoulder. He seemed bemused that I had come close to tears. For a moment, I forgot who he was and explained my reaction.
I couldn’t understand how he could be so cold and robotic, I said. He gave the impression that he didn’t care when his people were lying dead in a “faraway unknown land,” in the words of one of the relatives I had interviewed.
I remember Rutte said he understood my reaction, but he argued that the best approach was to wait and do things properly. “Then we get the truth,” he said.
But getting at the truth has meant cutting through a shifting mist of falsehoods about MH17 propagated by Russian officials and state-controlled media outlets. The more evidence has mounted pointing to its involvement, the more Moscow has doubled down on disinformation and denial.
It started within days of MH17 being shot down. Even as the Russian government and its separatist allies in eastern Ukraine were obstructing access to the crash site for investigators, the Russian military put up one of its most senior officers to implicate Ukraine for the massacre. The Kremlin-controlled RT network (formerly known as Russia Today) gave the briefing rolling coverage on its global English language channel.
Flight MH17’s course had been deliberately changed to send it over a war zone and a Ukrainian fighter jet had shot it down, claimed Lieutenant-General A.V. Kartapolov, the deputy head of the Russian armed forces.
But the satellite images the general used to make his case were shown to have been “significantly modified or altered” by a team of arms control experts who analyzed them. Later on, Russian government-controlled media put great effort into trying to prove that the plane had been brought down by a Buk missile fired by Ukrainian government forces.
The list of alternative theories grew longer and wilder — including a claim that MH17 was actually the Malaysian airliner that had disappeared over the Indian Ocean earlier that year and that it had been deliberately flown over eastern Ukraine packed with dead bodies.
The online investigation site Bellingcat has played an instrumental role in uncovering what happened to the plane, and the attempted cover-up afterwards. It was first to identify the Buk missile itself and the Russian army unit it belonged to. The team has also named potential suspects involved in firing the weapon.
By doing so, Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, believes that it has also helped “counter the Russian disinformation around the case.” It has been a sign “to any potential witnesses, especially those who were involved with MH17, that a lot of information is being gathered,” he said.
The Dutch-led Joint International Criminal Investigation (JIT) has also put considerable effort into probing all the alternative theories, one of its officials told me, to make sure that their case is watertight if and when they bring it to trial.
But as well as antagonizing distraught relatives, the avalanche of conspiracy theories has also helped undermine trust and sow division — a central goal of Russian disinformation campaigns. And in the years since MH17, there have been more signs of fracture in the Netherlands — with evidence that Moscow has kept working on the cracks.
A new far-right party, the Forum for Democracy, has been gaining ground politically. Its leader, Thierry Baudet, has openly questioned allegations of Russian involvement in the shooting down of the airliner. He also played a leading role in a successful campaign against the Netherlands supporting EU plans for closer ties with Ukraine. Nearly two-thirds of Dutch voters came out against the so-called association agreement in a referendum two years ago.
Subsequent analysis showed that Russian-linked fake news and forgeries had helped influence public opinion. One example was a widely shared video purportedly recorded by Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist “Azov Battalion,” threatening violence if the Dutch didn’t back the agreement.
Even though it was debunked as a fake spread by an infamous Russian troll factory, the video helped the no-campaign, scaring voters about the potential consequences of getting closer to Ukraine, according to one academic study. The same report also found that much of the no-campaign material had come straight from RT and another Kremlin-funded site, Sputnik.
A poll conducted at the time of the referendum by the IPSOS organization found that 19 percent of those who planned to vote against the agreement cited the shooting down of MH17 as the reason.
MH17 has had some impact on Russians living in the Netherlands too, according to those who know the community, prompting them to lower their profile. A store in The Hague that used to be known as Tsarsky (“belonging to Tsar”) has changed its name to “Smak”, a derivation of the word “taste” in Dutch, which also means the same thing for some Russians and Ukrainians. And the First Russian School of The Hague has become the Spinoza International School.
I first met Hans de Borst at his home in the small town of Monster. It was a few weeks after MH17 was shot down. He seemed more concerned about me as he laid out the coffee and raisin bread he had prepared. “I’m sure you haven’t been sleeping much.”
The living room had been transformed into a shrine to his daughter, with candles, favorite quotations, and a life-size photo of her smiling from the wall.
He felt “lucky,” he told me, when he learnt that Elsemiek had been recovered intact. Many relatives only had fragments of their loved ones returned, compounding their grief.
But he chose not to view his daughter’s body when it was repatriated to the Netherlands. The mortuary took a photo of her, in case he ever changes his mind.
She was traveling with her mother and step-family that day. Elsemiek loved cycling, playing the piano and, in de Borst’s words, going on “exotic adventures.”
The bereaved father had been aware there was a conflict in Ukraine before MH17. He had heard about it on the news. But he would have struggled to identify the protagonists or where exactly it was happening. Now, suddenly, incomprehensibly, Elsemiek had become a casualty of this war — just hours after he had kissed her goodbye.
Were the Russian-backed rebels to blame? Or the Ukrainian government and its forces? Or the Russian leader? Like other relatives, De Borst had no idea what to think at first. Four days after the plane was shot down, he wrote an open letter demanding that his daughter’s murderers own up to their crime.
“Thanks a lot, Mr Putin, rebels and leaders of the Ukrainian government, for killing my sweet and only child.”
It was a rare show of anger — also directed at his own government, accusing it of being too soft in its response. “If there were Americans or Russians on board, troops would have been sent in,” he told me at the time.
Today, he has no doubt who is responsible. “Putin has blood on his hands,” he said, citing the JIT’s most recent report as proof. It specifies that the Buk missile that brought down MH17 was made in Russia, and brought to Ukraine by a Russian army unit, the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade, based in the city of Kursk. After presenting the evidence, Prime Minister Rutte publicly blamed Russia and demanded Moscow cooperate with the criminal inquiry.
But some relatives fear the momentum is fading. This year, families have been organizing an annual memorial service themselves, with minor financial support from the Dutch government, according to relatives.
“Where are they? They’re not doing anything,” said Silene Fredriksz, who lost her only child Bryce on the plane.
She talked as she sat on her son’s bed. The covers are still rumpled, just as he left them. His girlfriend Daisy Oehlers’ slippers are in the corner, a Glamour magazine dated June 2014 lies on top of a pile scattered on a sofa.
It’s a bedroom frozen in time. Untouched since the day the young lovers rushed off to catch a flight “to paradise,” as Oehlers described it. She was referring to Bali, their intended final destination.
“In Holland grief is a taboo,” said Fredriksz. “Yes you can grieve but not too long. And speaking about your emotions is strange in Holland. What I do is strange, it’s not typical Dutch.” (Although many people use Holland to refer to the country, it is actually the name of the coastal region which forms the heart of the Netherlands)
“Every morning I open the door and say, “Morning Bryce, morning Daisy.” Of course in my head I know they are not coming home, but my heart cannot accept it.”
Fredriksz has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Counseling didn’t work, she said. “The only thing that helps is medication. That’s what I’m taking now. It numbs.”
People don’t understand, she continued. “You know in Holland you can take 16 weeks off after you have a baby. But when you lose your baby, which is far, far more painful — physically and emotionally — you are only allowed three days off work? That says it all. That’s how we deal with death in Holland.”
Pragmatic self-interest has also played a part in tempering the Netherlands’ response to MH17. It depends on economic and political ties with other, larger countries. And, as a small nation, it is hard to act alone.
To impose stiffer sanctions, the government would have required the EU’s support, including from “Putin’s friends in Europe like Viktor Orban,” said Jan Marinus Wiersma — a former member of the European parliament and now with the Clingendael Institute of International Relations.
The Netherlands also needs Russia’s gas and its consumers, for Dutch flowers and other agricultural products. As de Borst points out, “We’re angry with Russia, but we like it when our homes are warm.”
He is now one of a small group still actively campaigning for justice for the victims of MH17. Last month, they placed 298 empty chairs in the shape of an aircraft outside the Russian mission in The Hague.
But de Borst now backs the government’s strategy. Copying the American approach of a military response, as he had suggested in the immediate aftermath, would have backfired. “Then we would have had a real fight. Maybe a Third World War, for what? That wouldn’t bring our children back. I think the Dutch approach is best.”
The Netherlands’ allies have signalled their support too. On the eve of President Putin’s summit meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Finland, the foreign ministers of the G7 countries issued a statement calling on Russia “to account for its role” in the downing of MH17.
However, one politician in the Dutch ruling coalition, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, has been arguing for tougher measures against the Russian government. He wants to see the Netherlands introduce its own version of the U.S. Magnitsky Law to punish Putin and other senior Kremlin officials for their refusal to cooperate with the investigation.
Despite the voluminous stacks of evidence prosecutors have collected, they still need more information, including from witnesses, to identify the suspects. When they released their most recent report, the JIT issued a list of 11 questions asking for help identifying those involved.
But even if suspects are identified, they would still have to be extradited—an unlikely outcome given that there is no extradition treaty between Moscow and The Hague. And in a statement this May, Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that the Kremlin was sticking to its position of defiance, dismissing the evidence that had been presented, and condemning Dutch and Australian pressure on his country as “inappropriate.”
One option is for the planned tribunal near Schiphol airport to conduct trials in absentia. Another alternative being considered is an out of court settlement. The Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok has said that the Netherlands and Australia — which had 27 nationals on the plane — would seek unspecified financial damages.
But what the families really want is justice.
When they composed their message for their memorial bench, De Borst and other relatives added three more words in Russian, which translate as: “Humanity Is More Important Than Politics.”
“I felt adrenalin,” he said, recalling the day when they carried the bench here. It sent an important message from the families, he continued, looking towards the Russian mission beyond the trees. “The Russians want to make things foggy. But we know the truth.”
Yet that may still not be enough, he admitted. “We were raised in Holland to be honest. This country [Russia] is not honest. We can’t understand it. It’s something in our DNA.”
“Maybe it’s that same DNA that keeps the tears away.”