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Malaysia falls silent in honour of returning MH17 dead

A grieving Malaysia stood still in a minute of silence from 10.54am on Friday (Aug 22) as a mark of respect as the remains of 20 of 43 Malaysians killed in an air tragedy over Ukraine in July arrived home.

KUALA LUMPUR: A grieving Malaysia stood still in a minute of silence from 10.54am on Friday (Aug 22) as a mark of respect as the remains of 20 of 43 Malaysians killed in an air tragedy over Ukraine in July arrived home.

The 'Jalur Gemilang' national flag was flown at half-mast as the nation of 30 million stood united in mourning for those killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with 298 people aboard went down in eastern Ukraine on July 17, sending shock waves around the world. Many Malaysians opted to wear black on this day which had been declared a day of national mourning as they observed the minute of silence in remembrance of the victims, as state television aired recitations from the Koran and photos of the dead.

Traffic was halted at key landmarks across the country, including at the Penang bridge and in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building in Kuala Lumpur, while business, sport, entertainment and other events were cancelled or toned down.  "No words can express the sense of loss in seeing the bodies return, my prayers are with the victims and families of #MH17," Najib said on his Twitter feed.


Malaysia's King Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, Najib and other top officials were on hand to receive the coffins in a solemn ceremony at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The focus was on the ceremonial military honours at the Bunga Raya Complex at the KL International Airport (KLIA) accorded to the victims during which the announcement for the whole country to begin observing the one-minute silence was telecast live over radio and television. 

The announcement came after all the 17 caskets and three urns bearing the remains of the Malaysian nationals, which had arrived aboard a MAS MH6129 flight from Amsterdam, had been placed inside 20 hearses.

According to Bernama, 11 of the 20 victims were buried as at 7pm Malaysian (Singapore) time on Friday.


Family members could be seen breaking down in tears as the coffins were brought out from the aircraft and carried into the hearses. The remains were the first batch of the 43 Malaysians killed in the crash to be sent back to Malaysia from Amsterdam. 

Malaysia's Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, offering his sympathies and condolences to those affected by the MH17 tragedy, said in a statement: "As we honour our fellow citizens who lost their lives on MH17, I join the nation in solidarity to express our shared sorrow. I hope that their families are able to find some measure of solace from our unified strength."

He added: "We must continue to keep in mind those who have yet to be reconciled with their families. We will re-double our efforts and continue to work closely with our international partners, particularly the government of the Netherlands, to ensure that the remaining victims are soon reunited with their families."

Dozens of Malaysia Airlines cabin crew and pilots gathered near the welcoming ceremony in their blue uniforms, holding Malaysian flags and flowers to honour their deceased colleagues. Shazly, 40, a flight attendant who gave only her first name, citing a company request regarding contact with the media, remembered Nur Shazana Mohamed Salleh. They joined the airline at the same time in 2004 and become close friends.

'LIFE MUST GO ON'

"She was a very jovial girl. She loved her job very much. She was very close with all her friends," she said. "Life has to go on, even though it's very difficult for us to accept what has happened to our airline. They are our friends." Some wore T-shirts bearing their colleagues' names and the Arabic phrase for "See you in Paradise." 

Friday's remains included Ariza Ghazalee, 46, and her son Muhammad Afif, 18, part of an entire family of six wiped out in the disaster. It was a far different homecoming than what they had planned - the family was repatriating to Malaysia after three years abroad, and Ariza's final Facebook post had said, "Starting our new migration. Praise God."


The 43 Malaysian dead included 15 crew. The special flight arrived from Amsterdam, where remains have been taken for identification by Dutch authorities investigating the tragedy. All 298 on board the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight were killed, including 193 Dutch nationals.

A military guard conveyed the coffins and urns - at least three people have already been cremated - from the plane and into waiting hearses. The 20 hearses bearing the remains of the MH17 tragedy were driven past King Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah soon after the one minute of silence at 10.54am to honour Malaysian victims of the tragedy was observed. The hearses would go on different ways, with 13 heading to the cemeteries decided on by the families.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft would fly the remains of two victims to the Kuching International Airport, Sarawak and the remains of three others to the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport in Ipoh, while the EC724 helicopters would fly the remains of two more victims to Pagoh and Segamat in Johor.

The special Malaysia Airlines aircraft bearing the remains of the MH17 tragedy touched down at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang at 9.54am on Friday after a 12-hour journey from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

Many were laid to rest amid grief and anger. "Their loved ones can no longer hold them. Their bodies came back in boxes," an angry Abdul Rahman Nordin, a friend of Nur Shazana's family, said at a funeral for her and MH17 First Officer Ahmad Hakimi Hanapi outside Kuala Lumpur. "Justice must be served. If courts find that the plane was shot down intentionally, then those responsible must be punished with the death sentence."

Forty-three Malaysians perished in the downing of MH17 over Ukraine on July 17. The Malaysia Airlines MH17 plane with 298 people on board is believed to have been shot down over eastern Ukraine enroute to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. 

The West accuses Russian-backed separatists of shooting down MH17, while Moscow blames Ukraine. The tragedy compounded the country's grief over the troubling and still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 just four months earlier.

HEALING PROCESS

The airline and the Malaysian government came under fire worldwide for its chaotic response to MH370, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The plane is believed to have inexplicably diverted to the Indian Ocean, but no trace of the jet has been found. Some angry relatives have alleged a cover-up.

Malaysia's government has said 30 of its citizens on board MH17 had so far been identified. Further remains will return in coming days.

Malaysians are heavy users of social media, and Twitter feeds filled with expressions of sorrow, with MH17-related hashtags dominating top-trending rankings. Many expressed hope that the return of the remains can help Malaysia find closure from both air disasters.

"Welcome home #MH17, and please come back to us #MH370," read one. The search for more remains in Ukraine was called off earlier in August due to clashes between Kiev and the pro-Moscow rebels. Investigations are continuing into who was responsible for the tragedy.

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