The Netherlands: united in grief

LEEUWARDEN, the Netherlands – The shooting down of flight MH17 has immersed the Netherlands in deep mourning. Since the airport disaster on Tenerife in 1977 and the Bijlmer plane disaster of 1992, the Netherlands has never been as shocked as it has been through this event. Where at first there was unbelief and bewilderment, anger and a demand for justice has taken its place.

King Willem Alexander said in his address to the nation: “We are deeply moved by an event that cuts through our soul. It has brought about a deep wound in our society. Let us hold on to each other, open our hearts and care for each other. In greatest distress we depend on inner strength, compassion and inner solidarity.”

He added, “My wife and I empathize with all those who have been affected and who are steeped in mourning. We are with them in our thoughts. That also applies to my mother [Princess Beatrix] and the other members of our family who in these dark days feel an extra strong bond with the country.”

Prime Minister Rutte mentioned in his address to the people of the Netherlands: “Our first concern is [to] bring back our loved ones. After that, an independent investigation must provide clarity as to how this came about, so that justice can be done.”

The national institute Slachtofferhulp (victim relief) offers practical support to family members and relatives by listening to personal stories of people. It informs the employers of the victims about insurance and other financial matters. But it also offers help in the process of identifying the remains.


Wednesday, July 23, was announced as a day of national mourning. This kind of initiative had not been taken since the death of Queen Wilhelmina. Many sports events, like sailing competitions, were canceled or suspended. National and regional radio stations modified their programming. Drivers of commercial trucks placed black tape on their left outside mirror. Large stores, like Albert Heijn, removed their own flags and stopped playing taped music.

At four o’clock in the afternoon one minute of silence was observed. Almost everyone in the Netherlands took part. No landings took place at Schiphol airport, and all taxis came to a halt. The more than 80 windmills in Friesland and all 19 windmills in Kinderdijk were placed in what is called “rouwstand” [mourning mode]. This means that the bottom wing is fastened a little to the right of the windmill to indicate a “passing.” At government buildings the flags flew at half-mast. All in all, it was a very impressive display of empathy.

Around four o’clock the first bodies landed on the airport of Eindhoven. To see the first 40 coffins placed in hearses with military honours proved to be a very emotional moment for people in this small country. After this ceremony, attended by dignitaries and relatives, the hearses rode in a column to Hilversum where special teams will attempt to identify the remains. Some thousand international experts will take part in trying to identify the bodies. Along the route from Eindhoven to Hilversum crowds of bystanders lined the road to pay their respect. Many applauded as the cortege slowly passed by. That evening in Amsterdam some thousand people took part in a silent march.


The Raad van Open Kerken in Nederland (The Council of Open Churches in the Netherlands) held a special hour of reflection/prayer service in the St. Joris church in Amersfoort. The call was issued by Catholic bishops as well as by Protestant churches in the Netherlands. In addition to the offering of prayers and reflections, a choir sang beautiful hymns. Think of a number of Taize hymns, Psalm 22, Hymnbook songs 1008 and 416, Faure, Schubert (Ars Musica). The Bible text chosen for the occasion was Romans 8:38 and 39. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In attendance at this service, in addition to family and relatives, were King Willem Alexander, Queen Maxima and Prime Minister Rutte. Although there was room for 1,000 persons, the stream of people proved so great that a video screen had to be set up outside the cathedral. Special accent was placed on prayer and reflection. The focus was on the underlying solidarity in word and prayer. Of course, all churches in the Netherlands focused attention on the victims of the crash. In Gorredijk, Friesland, for example, an emotional service took place in connection with a married couple from that town who perished in the crash.

Here and there one can hear voices calling for retribution, if need be, through NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). But one also hears: “Vladimir Putin, why aren’t you doing anything?” Or: “If you want something done by Putin, then you have to go after what what’s important to him. Use forms of pressure and even deny the World Cup soccer tournament in 2018.”

However, the general opinion is fortunately one of caution and seeking for a diplomatic solution so that the return of the victims’ bodies is guaranteed. Besides, it will be hard to prove who pulled the trigger on the BUK missile. Will a bringing to justice of the perpetrators be even possible?

One thing is certain: the scars of this national wound will be visible and painful for years to come. At the same time the Netherlands has shown that it feels itself to be one with the victims and relatives, by uniting in sadness and mourning.


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