Wednesday 22 October 2014

Jet relatives struggle to cope

Published 23/03/2014 | 04:47

Angry relatives of Chinese passengers aboard the missing jet after Malaysian officials left a briefing in Beijing (AP)

Relatives of passengers on Malaysia Flight 370 are growing increasingly angry over the lack of information about the fate of their loved ones.

Wang Zheng's frustration continues to grow two weeks after the plane went missing.

"Biggest of all is the emotional turmoil I've been going through. I can't eat, I can't sleep. I've been dreaming of my parents every day," said the 30-year-old IT engineer from Beijing.

His father and mother, Wang Linshi and Xiong Yunming, were both aboard the flight as part of a group of Chinese artists touring Malaysia.

The plane's disappearance on its way from the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 has hit China particularly hard, with 153 of the 239 people on board citizens of the People's Republic.

It was the first major incident to hit Chinese travellers since they began visiting abroad in major numbers about a decade ago.

China's government responded with almost unprecedented forcefulness, deploying nearly a dozen ships and several aircraft to the search effort and assigning government officials to meet with relatives and liaison with Malaysian officials.

Relatives such as Mr Wang have put their personal and professional lives on hold waiting for any word of the fate of their loved ones.

At a sprawling hotel complex in Beijing, the relatives rise each morning and eat breakfast - at least those who can muster the appetite - before attending a briefing on the missing plane.

Then follows another long day of watching the news and waiting, before an evening briefing that inevitably offers little more information.

Amid the many theories and scant and often dubious, contradictory and disavowed findings, the relatives' patience has at times worn thin.

Following a brief meeting yesterday with Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian government officials, impatience turned to anger as relatives erupted in shouts of "give us back our loved ones".

A statement issued by relatives afterwards said: "The family members are extremely indignant.

"We believe we have been strung along, kept in the dark and lied to by the Malaysian government."

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein called on "all parties to be understanding during this extraordinary and difficult time," and said officials would "do everything in our power" to keep the relatives informed.

"I'm psychologically prepared for the worst and I know the chances of them coming back alive are extremely small," said Nan Jinyan.

She is the sister-in-law of missing passenger Yan Ling, a 29-year-old engineer who had worked for the last four years at a company that designs equipment for heart patients.

Like many of the relatives, she said her helpless feelings were worsened by being almost entirely dependent on the media for news, and that she was deeply unhappy with what she called the vague and often contradictory information coming from Malaysia Airlines.

"If they can't offer something firm, they ought to just shut up," said Ms Nan, who is representing the family as well as Mr Yan's 23-year-old girlfriend.

Nan said Mr Yan travelled frequently and had not talked about the Malaysia trip with his family, who come from the eastern province of Jiangsu.

"The last time he talked to us was about half a month before this happened. He travels quite frequently on business trips anyway, so we don't chat about his business trips on the phone," she said.

Volunteer psychologist Paul Yin, who has worked with some of the relatives, said not knowing the fate of their loved ones was preventing them from confronting their grief.

"When there is uncertainty for several days, people go from hope to despair, and back again, making it impossible to bring final healing," he said.

Thursday and Friday were particularly difficult days for the relatives, about 100 of whom are staying at the sprawling Lido Hotel complex in eastern Beijing.

Another two dozen flew to Kuala Lumpur, where there have also been emotional scenes at news briefings.

Word came on Thursday that satellite imagery had captured debris that might be part of the lost aircraft.

That night, Malaysian officials from several government departments flew to Beijing to communicate directly with the relatives.

But searches by plane and ship turned up no sign of any wreckage. The officials' presentation, meanwhile, was largely a reiteration of what the relatives already knew, without much new information.

The distrust of the authorities is rooted in modern China's experience with the arbitrary use of power and scorning of public opinion by the single-party communist state, social commentators say.

"China is now at a time of escalating social problems and government actions have sharpened the distrust," said Shi Shusi, an independent commentator and journalist with the official Worker's Daily newspaper.

Repeated government cover-ups in the name of preserving stability have had a corrosive effect on public trust, he said.

"Once the government lies, it's difficult to restore public belief."

Press Association

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