A nation pauses in grief as, finally, the dead get the respect they deserve
OUT of the carnage, chaos and unspeakable horror finally came a moment of calm.
A small dot appeared in the cloudless blue sky above the Dutch city of Eindhoven, gradually getting larger as the first plane carrying victims of last week's Malaysia Airlines disaster came in to land.
There were 16 bodies aboard the Hercules C-130, which just a few hours earlier had set off from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Then came a second plane, an Australian Boeing C-17, which touched down carrying a further 24 corpses.
Finally, the victims of this awful tragedy were coming home.
As the two planes with their precious cargo taxied into position and dulled their engines in front of up to 1,000 gathered relations, a lone trumpeter stepped forward to play the 'Last Post'. It echoed across a now silent airfield.
And at 4pm, this traumatised nation – from which two-thirds of Flight MH17's passengers originated – came to a halt.
From Amsterdam to Maastricht, the country fell silent. Trains and traffic ground to a standstill, and planes did not take off or land. The cranes in Rotterdam – Europe's largest port – ceased to swivel and haul. In supermarkets across the country, shoppers paused to remember the dead.
At a swimming pool in Almelo, bathers climbed out to stand by the water.
On the baking tarmac at the military airport, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima bowed their heads in remembrance, with the Dutch queen clutching her husband's hand and shedding tears.
Over 90 minutes, 40 coffins were unloaded, each borne on the shoulders of eight Dutch military personnel, then painstakingly transferred into waiting hearses.
It was choreographed to perfection, despite having been hastily organised only hours previously.
The ceremony was not announced until Tuesday evening, when Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, declared a national day of mourning – the first in more than 50 years, since the death of Queen Wilhelmina in 1962.
"I think it's good for the relatives that this has been arranged," said one woman yesterday, as she laid a single pink rose outside the military base.
Her boyfriend's aunt, 75-year-old Ninik Yuriane, had been on board Flight MH17; a "very sweet and kind" woman, she said, who was travelling to visit relations.
"It makes you feel less alone. For all of us who have lost someone, it allows us to share our feelings."
Barry Sweeney, whose son Liam was killed in the crash, had travelled from his home in Newcastle to be at the ceremony.
"It's unreal," he told ITV News. "I never thought I'd be standing here today talking about anything like this. I've come with Liam's brother Mark as a spokesman for the Geordie Nation, if you can call it that.
"We need closure. We need to see our children. All the mums, the dads, brothers, sisters; we need them back here. We need closure so they can be buried very soon."
Mr Rutte warned the families on Tuesday that identifying the bodies could take "weeks or months", and that not all of the victims' nationalities were known.
Flags from 17 countries flew at half mast on the airfield, as representatives from those nations that had lost their countrymen were present. From Malaysia – the country which played a pivotal role in negotiating the release of the bodies from the separatists – the ministers for transport and foreign affairs, Liow Tiong Lai and Sri Anifah Aman, were present.
Prince Laurent of Belgium sat alongside David Lidington, the minister for Europe, the British ambassador to Holland, and the entire Dutch cabinet.
Every flight that returns bearing bodies will be granted the same ceremony, albeit without the assembled international dignitaries. With only 40 of the estimated 200 bodies in Kharkiv returned yesterday, there will be many more arrivals at this airfield.
And confusion still surrounds how many bodies of the 298 victims on board the ill-fated Boeing 777 have been recovered. Separatist rebels claimed to have recovered and handed over 282 bodies and more than 80 body parts, but Dutch officials estimate the tally to be far lower.
The crash site is now deserted, even though body parts are still reported to litter the area.
Esther Naber, a spokesman for the Dutch contingent in Ukraine, said: "We will not know (the number of bodies) until we have finished the identification process, and that could take months. The bags have not been opened.
"In certain body bags, they can be body parts from more than one person. We are talking about human remains really, not bodies."
As the final coffins were solemnly placed into hearses and driven away from the airfield yesterday, the relations and official delegation applauded loudly – an outpouring of relief and exhaustion, in the hope that, finally, their ordeal was coming to an end.
Motorcycle outriders led the way as the convoy of the deceased made its way to Hilversum military airbase, where identification would begin, and the process of returning loved ones to their families.
Writing on his Facebook page, Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister summed up the feelings of a nation.
The victims and their loved ones represent the best of our nation, and will receive the best of our nation," he wrote.
"Nobody, nobody will make us small." (© Daily Telegraph, London)