Mourners sign a condolence book outside Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, on Saturday near a makeshift memorial to those who died in the Malaysian Airline tragedy . (AFP)
Amsterdam, July 19: Flags flew at half-staff yesterday in this small but extremely international country, one that is accustomed to standing on the forefront of global cultural debates over such things as gay rights, euthanasia and marijuana policies.
But on Thursday, after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Netherlands found itself thrust squarely into an unaccustomed role at the centre of the realpolitik of the conflict in Ukraine.
It seemed as if everyone in the Netherlands, a country of 16 million people, knew someone among the 189 Dutch nationals killed in the crash, whether personally, or as a friend of a friend, or simply by the familiarity of celebrity, as with Senator Willem Witteveen and the AIDS specialist Joep Lange.
Like Dr Lange, a scientist, many of those on board were activists travelling to AIDS 2014, an international conference in Melbourne, Australia, at which former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to speak.
There were many others, of course: a florist couple on vacation; a young employee of the human rights organisation Amnesty International; children accompanying their parents on holiday excursions. All were sad testaments to one of the worst plane disasters in the country’s history.
For the Dutch, avid travellers but also keen business people, the prospect that Russian-backed separatists might be responsible for the downing of Flight 17 poses a major dilemma.
The Dutch passion for travel is as old as the country, with its low-lying, swampy areas unfit for agriculture and its small size forcing ambitious Dutch to look beyond their borders. “This small nation is used to getting its impulses from abroad,” said Geert Mak, a prominent Dutch author and historian.
And while the disaster has touched so many here, the government is also mindful that Russia is the country’s third-largest trade partner and that business is growing, especially natural gas. Reflecting those ties, Prime Minister Mark Rutte refused to go as far as President Obama, saying at a news conference yesterday that he was not yet convinced that the plane had been taken down by a missile.
“It seems MH-17 was shot down, but we have no exact information on what caused the disaster,” Rutte said on state television.
The Prime Minister’s reaction illustrates the small manoeuvering space the Dutch have when it comes to their relations with Russia, said Alexander Pechtold, one of the country’s main Opposition leaders, who heads D66, a liberal democratic party.
“We are a small country, dependent on our exports, and unlike the United States, we cannot always react from our moral high grounds,” Pechtold said. “Still, if it is proven that the Russians have their fingerprints on this horrible event, we cannot look in the other direction.”
Mak said that the possible Russian support for Ukrainian separatists places the Dutch in a difficult position.
“Imagine that had been 189 Americans on that plane,” he said. “We have a serious bone to pick with Russia after this horrible incident. “Especially if it turns out that Putin has armed these men,” he said of the Ukrainian separatists.
Meeting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans said: “We are already shocked by the news we got today of bodies being dragged around, of the site not being treated properly ... People are angry, furious.”
The Ukrainian security council in Kiev said staff of the emergencies ministry had found 186 bodies and had checked some 18 sq km of the scattered 25sq km crash site. But the workers were not free to conduct a normal investigation.
“The fighters have let the emergencies ministry workers in there but they are not allowing them to take anything from the area,” security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. “The fighters are taking away all that has been found.”
Malaysia, whose national airline has been battered by its second major disaster this year, said it was “inhumane” to bar access to the site around the village of Grabove, near the city of Donetsk, but said Russia was doing its “level best” to help.
A team of Malaysian experts flew in to Kiev today and experts from Interpol are due there tomorrow to help with the identification of victims. Dutch, US and a host of other specialists are being lined up to help in the investigation.