A journey towards dignity for MH17 victims
It is an eerie feeling.
There would be silence but for the tinkling sound of the flags, flying at half-mast, clattering against poles in the wind.
On one side of the airfield is a line of black hoardings. Behind it, shielded from the prying lenses of the press, are hundreds of people whose lives have been irrevocably and tragically altered by the horrific downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Today, there are 500 of them.
But from the press pen, all you can see is their feet milling around.
What must they be feeling? For some of them, this is the third day in a row they have visited the Eindhoven Airbase, 90 minutes south-east of Amsterdam, to see the coffins arrive. Many of them will be back again tomorrow, when another 35 coffins arrive. They have already watched 40 be repatriated on Wednesday and another 70 on Thursday. Today, Friday, 75 coffins arrive.
Two huge military aircraft — a propeller-driven Royal Netherlands Air Force Hercules and a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 — glide surprisingly quietly onto the runway.
Their cargo: human tragedy. Their mission: restoring dignity to those who have lost their lives.
Although it is a civilian ceremony, the whole operation is handled with military precision.
The aircraft stop on the tarmac, in front of the families. Troops from various Dutch military regiments march in silence and take up their formation at the rear of the planes. Others form a guard of honour. A bugler plays the Last Post, before a minute’s silence.
Finally, the cortege snakes its way onto the airfield.
In what is a stark reminder of the scale of the tragedy, the hearses come in three groups — 25 at a time.
They pull up alongside the guard of honour, the drivers open their doors and get out in absolute synchronicity, and open the rear doors.
With great care and solemnity, one-by-one the coffins are slowly brought down from the aircraft and placed into the hearses.
On the other side of the black hoardings, the relatives watching the procession have no idea whether the coffin they are looking at contains someone they love — someone for whom their heart is doubtless breaking. Or whether it contains someone they never met, but to whose life, and death, they are now so tragically linked.
The identities of the people in each coffin may not be known for several months. The hearses will take them from the airbase to nearby Hilversum, where forensic teams at the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks will spend the coming months identifying the bodies.
When finally the cortege moves off, it passes close by the families. They applaud as the vehicles go by. It is a mark of respect, a gesture of love. Perhaps, too, it provides some release to the tension.
When the cortege is gone, another quickly moves into place and the whole process repeats itself. And then repeats again.
When the cortege finally leaves the military base and enters the civilian streets of the Eindhoven, the Dutch people are there in the thousands to show their respects. Indeed, they have lined the route from the airbase to the barracks every day of the repatriation operation.
It is solemn and dignified; a little bit of human kindness after the terror and horror of July 17 and the days that followed.