Millions of black-clad Malaysians fell silent Friday in tribute to their 43 countrymen killed in the MH17 disaster as the first remains were brought home and laid to rest amid deep sorrow and anger.
People across the country of 28 million observed a minutes’ silence at 10:55 am, shortly after a Malaysia Airlines jet landed with the remains of 20 people killed when MH17 was blasted from the sky by a suspected surface-to-air missile over Ukraine.
Five weeks after the July 17 tragedy, the coffins and urns were conveyed to white hearses in a solemn ceremony presided over by Malaysia’s King Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah and Prime Minister Najib Razak at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Muslim-majority Malaysia had declared a day of national mourning, with flags lowered to half-mast, and business, sport, entertainment and other events cancelled or toned down.
Residents of the capital Kuala Lumpur overwhelmingly donned black, with many Muslim women in flowing black robes and Islamic headscarves, as state television aired recitations from the Quran and photos of the dead.
“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.
Dozens of Malaysia Airlines cabin crew and pilots, wearing their work uniforms and holding Malaysian flags and white flowers, held an emotional vigil near the airport ceremony, some weeping, others praying for their lost colleagues.
‘Life must go on’
Shazly, 40, a flight steward who gave only his first name, citing a company request regarding contact with the media, mourned for Nur Shazana Mohamed Salleh, 31, who joined the airline with him in the same 2004 recruitment class.
“She was a very jovial girl. She loved her job very much. She was very close with all her friends,” he 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.” Fifteen crew were aboard.
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 special flight arrived from Amsterdam, where bodies have been taken for identification by Dutch authorities investigating the tragedy.
All 298 on board Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight MH17 were killed, including 193 Dutch nationals.
The West accuses Russian-backed separatists of shooting down the plane, while Moscow blames Ukraine.
The remains were conveyed onward to their hometowns for memorials in mosques, churches and temples — reflecting Malaysia’s unique multi-ethnic make-up.
Many were quickly 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.”
MH17 has compounded Malaysian grief over the troubling and still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 just four months earlier.
It vanished March 8 with 239 people aboard after inexplicably deviating from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing path.
It is believed to have gone down in the Indian Ocean but no trace has been found and the cause remains unknown.
With tears welling in her eyes, a former Malaysia Airlines flight attendant who declined to give her name said MH17 was “different from MH370 — at least now we have them back home.”
“(Justice) is the only hope we have now — that justice is done, for all airlines,” she said at a separate funeral outside the capital for her former colleague, flight attendant Dora Shahila Kassim.
“Justice will prevail one day. That is not up to us.”
The government says 30 Malaysian MH17 passengers and crew have been identified. Further remains will return in coming days.
Malaysia’s active social media saw an outpouring of sorrow, with many users expressing hope that Friday’s homecoming could help bring closure for both disasters.
“Welcome home #MH17, and please come back to us #MH370,” read one posting.