MH17 victims' journey far from over

06:50, Jul 29 2014
DISASTER FIELD: Miners inspect a piece of debris from an Air Malaysia plane that was shot down over Ukraine.

It has already taken them from a remote field in the baking Ukrainian sun to the preserving cool of a military mortuary in the Netherlands. But even for those whose bodies have already been recovered, the journey of the dead of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is far from over.

It was a journey that started like so many others: the rush to the airport, the passport and security checks, the wait at the departure gate. For some it was a business trip or just another day at work. For others it was a family holiday, a return home, or the start of a new adventure.

It was never meant to end like this.

Guard of honour with coffins of MH17 victims
FAREWELL: A Ukrainian guard of honour stood by some of the coffins of victims of Flight MH17 before they were loaded on to a plane at Kharkiv airport.

The remains of perhaps 200 of the 298 victims of the July 17 missile attack now reside in a temporary morgue - a converted army drill hall lined with refrigeration units - at a Dutch military facility near Hilversum. There, a team of 200 specialist disaster victim identification investigators from around the world, including 19 Australians, is working systematically to put names to each body.

MH17 left Amsterdam's busy Schiphol airport 15 minutes late, at 6.15pm on Thursday, July 17. At 11.30pm, Malaysian Airlines lost contact with the Boeing 777. Ten minutes later, Russian news agency Interfax reported a passenger jet had been shot down over Ukraine.

Reports quickly circulated the plane had been shot down by an anti-aircraft missile. It would be 10 days before data from the black box flight recorder - which initially fell into the hands of the same Russian separatist rebels accused of shooting down the passenger jet - would confirm the plane was hit multiple times by shrapnel from a missile explosion.


JOURNEY HOME: A coffin of one of the victims of MH17 is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven, in the Netherlands.

It was here, in the middle of the night, in the middle of Ukrainian fields, and spread across tens of kilometres, that the journey of the dead began.

As investigators, experts and western governments scrambled for access to the site, the bodies of 298 people laid in the hot sun for three days.

As many as a third of them - their remains as yet undiscovered - are still there nearly two weeks later.

The rebels began placing some remains in body bags on the Saturday after the crash, and then took them to nearby Torez train station where they were placed on the so-called "train of death". As the political situation surrounding the disaster intensified, on Monday the remaining easy-to-locate bodies joined the train.

The train wound its way across the Ukrainian countryside for 12 hours to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv. There, Interpol and Dutch specialists began labeling and numbering the bodies.

Wednesday July 23 was a national day of mourning for the Dutch, as the first 40 coffins were flown from Kharkiv to the Netherlands' Eindhoven Airbase. The remains were greeted by 1000 devastated relatives, Dutch royalty, political leaders, and 400 members of the press.

Over the next four days another 187 coffins arrived at the airbase before being placed in hearses for the 100 kilometre drive to Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks at Hilversum.

Hilversum is a layover on the journey. The dead may be there for many months.

Those leading the identification investigations say it could be several weeks before they are ready to announce more bodies have been satisfactorily identified.

For the sake of the families, remains will be released to families as soon as identities have been established forensically - and then reviewed and verified by an "identity commission" of seven experts.

For the Australians, this will mean one last plane trip. The federal government is still talking to families about repatriation arrangements, including whether military or commercial aircraft will be used.

It will be a long, final journey home for the undeserved dead of MH17.

Sydney Morning Herald