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Grief, and business as usual, at Schiphol Airport

With pilgrimages and advocacy, friends and family of MH17 victims grapple with grief

AMSTERDAM -- At the airport, we stand in so many chaotic lines: the security line, the line to board the plane, the line for the restroom. 

But at Amsterdam’s Schipohl airport, there is a new line in which people are willing to stand calmly and quietly – no matter how long it takes to make it to the front.

It’s the line for condolence book for the victims of Flight MH017. 

Flight attendants, passengers, and airport visitors have all stood in the outdoor line on the airport’s upper level. Some clutch flowers they plan to lay on the growing memorial, marked by stanchions.

Already, hundreds of flower bouquets are neatly stacked among photographs of victims, and flickering candles, but visitors like Danny Sioncke are perpetually adding new memories to the pile.

Sioncke drove two hours to the Amsterdam airport.

He doesn’t have a flight to catch.  He doesn’t even live in The Netherlands. He came from Belgium to pay tribute to a boy on his soccer team, Steven Noreilde.

Steven Noreilde, a 12-year-old midfielder on his soccer team, died along with his parents at the start of their vacation when MH17 was shot down.

“Little Steven was a 12-year-old boy who died together with his parents in the air crash,” Sioncke said. “We felt like we needed to be here today with flowers.”

He and another team manager carried 16 white roses on behalf of Steven’s 16 teammates who couldn’t join them.  He placed the flowers next to a framed photograph of Steven.  He also added the little boy’s yellow soccer jersey to the pile. Steven played midfield. 

“[He was a] very good football player.  Everyone liked him. He was a silent boy, very polite, very friendly, and he always played the best possible match,” said Sioncke.  “[He was] always sweating – red cheeks – very cute boy and very nice, just like his parents.”

Sioncke said Steven’s parents, Jan Noreilde and Annemieke Hakse, were on the same flight.

“Everyone loved them, but I’m sure that these other people are very nice as well,” he said, glancing at the giant memorial filled with reminders of other victims.

“It’s a tragedy for every individual of the family and friends,” he said.  “It’s huge.”

Of the 298 victims on board the plane, 193 were Dutch, many of them children. Schiphol Airport, the last place on earth they stood alive, has become a sacred congregation point to remember the victims. With the return of the bodies to the Netherlands delayed by fighting, there have been no funerals where loved ones can mourn.

Beside the spread of flowers, there’s a table with a simple leather-bound notebook where for days, visitors, friends and family have left their condolences and said goodbye.

Paul de Kuijer hasn’t visited it yet. He last talked to his brother Pim de Kuijer, an HIV lobbyist and democracy advocate, the day before he boarded flight MH17. 

Paul de Kuijer said if his brother was still alive, he would be calling on people to respond to the crash of Malaysian Airlines 17 rationally, in a way that wouldn't escalate the conflict.

“I thought I knew my brother very well,” he said. “But in the last few days after the incident, and with all the reaction from friends and family and colleagues, I now have a better understanding of how he touched so many lives.”

“I think he was a remarkable person,” he added.

Pim de Kuijer worked on democracy projects in Turkey, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Malaysia and, most recently, Ukraine, where he was an election observer on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Union, according to his brother.

He was proud after the election, Paul de Kuijer said, but had grown saddened over the last few months over the rising tensions in the region – the tensions that were the backdrop to his senseless death.

“He had friends on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border,” said de Kuijer, “and I think the last thing he would have wanted was this incident to actually fuel the conflict even further.”

And to cope with his loss, de Kuijer has taken on his brother’s message, championing dialogue and understanding. If things deteriorate, he said, it wouldn’t bring peace to the people of Ukraine or his family. And it wouldn’t bring back his brother.

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