Saturday 14 December 2019

Lack of respect for the dead added to horror of MH17 crash

A local resident walks past debris at the site where Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed, near Petropavlivka village in the Donetsk region. Photo: Reuter
A local resident walks past debris at the site where Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed, near Petropavlivka village in the Donetsk region. Photo: Reuter

Barbara Scully

This week my extended family will gather for a special meal. We are marking the 50th birthday of my brother, Tony. Tony died suddenly and by suicide in 1996 when he was 31.

Our gathering will be an evening of remembering and sharing stories about him, particularly with his nieces and nephews, most of whom he never met. We are all looking forward to it.

With the healing expanse of 18 years, the initial shock of his death has faded into the corners of our consciousness. But at the time, it was the little acts of kindness, of humanity and empathy that helped us to deal with our heartbreak.

On the day of his removal we gathered at the mortuary chapel of St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin. After some prayers, the coffin was borne out to the hearse and we, the family, filed into the mourning car behind.

As the cortege prepared to pull away, a nun, whom we had first met three days previously in A&E, stepped out and took up a position in front of the hearse.

She then began a slow and solemn walk leading us out of the grounds of the hospital. When we reached the gates, she simply stood aside and bowed her head as we passed.

It was a gesture of utter simplicity but spoke of the reverence of this final journey of my brother's body.

I thought of that nun again this week as I watched, in shock, at how the bodies of the passengers of flight MH17 were left for days, lying in fields and lanes strewn with aircraft wreckage and personal belongings.

Finally, last Monday night we watched the TV footage of the remains, now in black body bags being man-handled unceremoniously onto what looked like a cattle train for their slow journey out of the hell that was created by the exploding aircraft and its cargo.

The images carried eerie echoes of grainy footage of trains from World War II.

Thirteen years ago the world watched as the city of New York struggled with the horror that had been visited upon them; a tragedy 10 times as great as that in Ukraine in terms of the numbers of dead.

In the aftermath of 9/11, police and firefighters worked tirelessly to retrieve bodies from the rubble of two skyscrapers.

Each time human remains were located, work stopped, machines were silenced and the bodies were slowly and reverently removed from the site.

There was such a simple dignity involved; a gentleness amid the mind-numbing awfulness all around them.

In fact, as recently as last May almost 8,000 unidentifiable human remains were placed in special repository in the museum at Ground Zero in the hope that with technological advances in the future, identification will be possible and thus enable the remains to be returned to their respective families.

That, right there, is why reverence for the bodies of the dead is important. The least we can offer those whose lives have been torn apart by the tragedy of losing a loved one is the recognition, through our actions, of the sanctity of the life that is lost.

We can acknowledge that the person who died, although unknown to us personally, was someone very special to their families.

This has nothing to do with religious belief or belief in the afterlife. It has everything to do with empathy and respect; an appreciation of a deeply personal loss. Why was this reverence completely lacking in the fields of Ukraine?

How can soldiers, rebels, men (I didn't see any women) become so insensitive, so dehumanised, so devoid of basic humanity?

As news of the downing of MH17 began to hit our news media at the end of last week my daughter was preparing to leave Perth in Western Australia for a visit home.

Over the weekend we monitored her journey north which included a stop in Kuala Lumpur and a flight with Malaysian Airlines.

Just a few days before that, Irish woman Edel Mahady said her goodbyes in Ireland and began her long journey in the opposite direction, back to her home in Perth.

As I watched the TV pictures in the hours immediately after the tragedy and saw luggage and passports, burned laptops and children's toys amid the plane wreckage, I thought how important it would be for the families to get their loved one's belongings back intact and quickly.

I naively assumed that even in a warzone the bodies of dead innocent civilians would be handled expeditiously and with appropriate dignity.

My daughter arrived here tired but safely early on Monday morning. Ms Mahady's life ended in the skies over Eastern Europe.

Her family's loss, like that of all those who lost loved ones aboard MH17, is hard to imagine. But the lack of empathy or basic humanity in dealing with the aftermath is cruel in the extreme and beyond comprehension.

Irish Independent

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