Shaikh Mohd Noor Mahmood’s daughter doesn’t understand. When his picture appears on the television news, she says “Walid,” Arabic for father. Two-year-old Zulaika doesn’t know that her father is never coming home.
Shaikh was one of the 15 Malaysian crew members on Flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, an act that has shattered the lives of family members across the world of the 298 people killed by the attack.
“My daughter is too young to realize what is happening,” said her mother, Madiani Mahdi, who is also a flight attendant for Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) “She’s very close to her dad and he looks after her when I am flying.”
Beyond the accusations and political posturing over who was to blame for firing the missile that destroyed the commercial jet, relatives of those on board are struggling to come to terms with the horror of losing husbands, wives, sons and daughters.
“No one’s really certain until all the information comes in,” said Louis Downs, director of the Southeast Asia Hub for Research in Trauma. Reactions such as post-traumatic stress disorder will affect “a very large number of people,” he said in a phone interview from Brunei. “It could go on for the rest of your life.”
For Madiani, who met her husband while working on the Kuala Lumpur-Amsterdam route five years ago, she said the trauma began with a phone call from a family member on the night of the disaster.
“Where’s Shaikh? Where’s Shaikh? Have you heard the news? Switch on the TV.”
Confused, Madiani said she asked what was going on. The reply was short: “MH17.”
“Yes, Shaikh is on that flight. It’s on its way, landing tomorrow at 6 a.m.”
“Switch on the TV now.”
Watching the first incomplete reports of the loss of the jet, Madiani said she screamed. Later, she sent a desperate text message to her husband’s phone: “Where are you? Hope you’re ok..I will fetch you. As soon as you land, call me ok? I’ll wait for you.”
Madiani, 42, who was scheduled to fly to Dubai the day after the MH17 crash, said she still hasn’t accepted that her husband is dead.
“I’m still in shock, I still don’t believe it 100 percent,” she said on the telephone yesterday. “I’m still hoping he’s there and miracles can happen. Until I see the body, it’s hard to sink in.”
Access to the crash site has been hampered by separatists who control the area and are fighting Ukrainian government forces. Rebel leader Alexander Borodai agreed yesterday to hand over the remains of 282 victims, stored in trains, to Dutch authorities, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said.
At least 190 of those on board were from the Netherlands, while 43 were from Malaysia, including the crew. There were also passengers from eight other nations, including 27 Australians.
An hour after news that the flight had crashed, Mariyam Yusoff wrote a prayer on Facebook for the safety of her pilot husband Wan Amran Wan Hussin, the crew and the passengers.
“All the newspapers are calling me,” she wrote to concerned family and friends who expressed shock and disbelief, telling them not to ring her too. Along with an attachment of the crew manifest for Flight 17, the mother of two posted: “Please pray for my husband.”
The tragedy has sparked an outpouring of grief in Malaysia, with impromptu shrines across the country, where people can leave prayers, notes of love, flowers and gifts. It should be a time of celebration, the last week of the fasting month of Ramadan, when families prepare for Eid al-Fitr, the nation’s biggest holiday.
It’s a time when families gather and many relatives living abroad come home for a reunion. In the final days of Ramadan, shopping malls and bazaars are packed as people buy traditional outfits and purchase pineapple tarts, decorations and flower arrangements to welcome relatives.
Madiani said her husband loved singing. One of the last songs he performed was Dendang Perantau, or Song of the Traveler, a favorite on Malaysian radio stations ahead of next week’s Eid celebrations.
Flight 17 stewardess Dora Shahila Kassim, a divorcee, had asked her mother to buy an outfit for her 15-year-old daughter, the Malaysian Insider reported, citing her sister Darlina Kwan. Dora’s Facebook page showed her liking for Candy Crush (KING) and Liverpool Football Club, and her support for Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of Malaysian Air Flight 370, which vanished more than four months ago.
MH370 went off radar screens on March 8 with 239 people on board en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, sparking the longest search for a missing jetliner in modern aviation history.
For relatives and friends of those on board that flight, the agony of loss was drawn out for weeks as an international search effort scoured the oceans for signs of the lost aircraft. It was 17 days before Malaysian Air said there was no hope of finding any survivors. No trace of the plane has yet been found.
A day after the MH17 crash, a relative speaking to reporters at Kuala Lumpur airport said Mariyam, the wife of pilot Wan Amran, was still in a state of disbelief. In the gated community of Alam Impian Tinta about 40 kilometers from the Kuala Lumpur city center, a security officer guarding the compound said the family didn’t want to be interviewed.
On Mariyam’s Facebook page is a picture of Wan Amran, 49, in his uniform with their sons.
Fellow MH17 pilot Eugene Choo, 44, was a motorcycle enthusiast who could do a “180 wheelie using an 80cc Honda cub,” said his former classmate Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan.
Three years ago, Choo bought an Aprilia superbike made by Piaggio & C. SpA. (PIA), according to Idon Pang, who was head of the brand in Malaysia for Naza Group and said he became friends with the pilot after selling him the bike.
At 29, First Officer Ahmad Hakimi Hanapi was the second-youngest among the crew. He and his wife had a child six months ago, the New Straits Times reported. Stewardess Hamfazlin Sham Mohamed Arifin, who would have turned 38 this week, had her second child in November 2012, according to her Facebook posts.
As many as 80 children were on Flight 17, according to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
All the crew and passengers probably would have been killed or lost consciousness instantly due to the blast from the missile, said James Vosswinkel, a trauma surgeon who led a study of TWA Flight 800 that exploded and crashed off New York’s Long Island in 1996.
“No one could survive,” said Nikolai Ivanov, 51, a local resident in Ukraine who says he saw “a fireball” before bodies and wreckage rained down in a local field near the village of Grabovo. “I saw debris falling from the sky. Newspapers and documents came down. The pilot was on the ground, in his uniform and still strapped into his seat.”
In her grief, Madiani tries to remember the things about her husband that made her happy. The things she will miss.
“He liked to brush my teeth, he would give me a massage,” she said. “We would text each other when we arrive at our destinations, share what happened on our flights, how tired we are.”
On the day Flight 370 disappeared, Dora Shahila’s Facebook picture showed a pair of hands cupped in prayer. Now, the MH17 stewardess is the one being mourned.
“The whole world is praying for you mum,” her daughter Diyana Yazeera said on Facebook.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lars Klemming at firstname.lastname@example.org Adam Majendie, Linus Chua