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Flight MH 17 and The Little Dutch Girl – A Personal Reflection

Sorry little girl. May the doors of heaven open at the sound of your footsteps May a bright angel watch over and follow you  through your  inevitable journey.

4 mins read
File photo of MH17 plane crash: All 283 passengers, including 80 children, and 15 crew members were killed [ Photo: Special Arrangement]

You are an open wound

And we are standing

In a pool of your blood

Rupi Kaur

25th of January 2023 was significant from a judicial standpoint, but it was a grim reminder of how many lives were stolen in the most violent and egregious way.

The Destruction

One of the worst atrocities in the annals of civil aviation was perpetrated when Flight MH 17 was destroyed over Eastern Ukraine by a ground-based missile. Was Russia to blame? Or was it Ukraine? Or even the airline for flying over dangerous territory?  The aircraft operating the flight was shot down in eastern Ukraine about 60km from the Russian border on 17 July 2014, allegedly by pro-Russia separatists.  All the 298 passengers – 193 of whom were Dutch – are believed to have died, and some of the remains of those who perished were never recovered. It is now revealed that death was not instantaneous.

Everyone seemingly responsible for the heinous act started deflecting blame, and a little girl (and all others on board) on the flight was forgotten, except for her  devastated father who grieved the unbearable loss of his only child. 

From then on, everything became clinical and adjudicatory.

Seven and a half years later, The European Court of Human Rights ruled on 25th January 2023 – on a purely procedural and technical issue –  that complaints against Russia from Ukraine and the Netherlands should go to trial, but it was not about what the little Dutch girl lost. Who would care anymore, anyway?

The European Court of Human rights, in a press release said: “Among other things, the Court found that areas in eastern Ukraine in separatist hands were, from May 11, 2014 and up to at least January 26, 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation” , referring to “the presence in eastern Ukraine of Russian military personnel from April 2014 and the large-scale deployment of Russian troops from August 2014 at the latest.”

The Little Dutch Girl

One day in mid July 2014 a young girl –  full of hope for her future and bubbling with the energy of youth – boarded a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, in Amsterdam.  She had everything in life to be thankful for  – a university education,  romance and courting, a good life  with a warm home and a family – all  in front of her.  The best was yet to come.  It was time for new life to start with the freshness of hope and all the happiness that her young  heart could take.  Her  penalty for being born was not even in the distant horizon.

Her destination was Kuala Lumpur, and she was looking forward to a lighthearted romp on a fun flight and a glorious holiday with her family who were travelling with her.  

Yet she did not make it.

Every day, people die of accidents caused by their own negligence, or diseases beyond their control. People also die of intentional killing by others. Somewhat rarely, people suffer death through random acts of violence – like the little Dutch girl. For her there was no second chance.  There was no going back to the perfumed meadow of Summer. It was as though an alien sky swallowed her that clear day and the future became an illusion.

There are no answers no good, no evil only a million promises not kept that day when it raised its ugly head.  We can only fill the craters with ashes; level the furrows plant grass, trees, flowers lay white gravel path some rustic benches – a public park and hush the cries of orphaned parents.

But there was no one when darkness fell that night and all the lights went out.  She should have had someone that she could find.  She should not have been alone to weep.

My Reflections

Today, that little girl would have been in her early twenties. What would she be doing? Perhaps reminiscing over her first and only love at university? The first time she saw him and looked down and walked away? How memories of him protecting both under a tiny umbrella when they walked alone in the rain flood her mind? How she forgot to tell him what was on her mind? How she hurt for having forgotten to tell him what was on her mind? How excited she felt when she scored high grades and ran up to tell him? The look on dad’s face when she told him of her grades.

Maybe she would be holding her first born lovingly and tenderly, while her baby peered at her radiant like a pearl in an oyster that had a little door. She would have been overwhelmed with joy as though her whole world had been invigorated by the touch of a butterfly and the splash of a drop of dew. She could have had many days walking through tender meadows of sunshine and warmth amidst the laughter and joy of simple pleasures.

We Failed Her

We did not keep our promises to a little girl who depended on us for her safety We did not have stringent regulations, and Standards to stop that flight.  We knew the area was dangerous,  infested with unscrupulous elements holding  ground-based missiles. Yet we did nothing to prevent the ominous and grave risk that was posed to the flight. We did not have a system of sharing and disseminating threat information in a timely manner. We did not know to whom this information should have been relayed.  We don’t seem to have known what risk avoidance was – that it involved a risk assessment technique that entails eliminating hazards, activities and exposures that place valuable assets at risk.  In the case of civil aviation within the context of conflict zones this would mean eliminating hazards by avoiding the airspace over that zone entirely.  Unlike risk management, which is calculated to control dangers and risks, risk avoidance totally bypasses a risk.  The information to States on threats posed to their civil aviation over conflict zones would therefore had  to be disseminated through policy and procedure, training and education and technology implementations.

We did not do that.

Sorry little girl. May the doors of heaven open at the sound of your footsteps May a bright angel watch over and follow you  through your  inevitable journey. May we meet again on the horizon of eternity when our ship finally sails beyond every limit of our sight.

Above all, may we never walk away from you.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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