HOPE can sustain the grieving, but does it also cause more pain?
Almost a year after Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 vanished enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, family members of the 239 passengers and crew members are clinging on a sliver of hope that, with no debris found so far, their loved ones could still be alive.
This possibility has sustained some of them, especially the elderly. But as the world moves along hurriedly, the lives of many others have shuddered to an abrupt halt, the burden of not knowing what happened to their loved ones haunting - and torturing - them.
The inability to attain closure has left many in a destructive limbo: Some have had to seek psychiatric help for depression and anxiety, while others have put their lives on hold, impulsively leaving behind jobs and family and moving to squalid living quarters in Beijing to await news.
“If we never find out the truth, this pain will be with us for the rest of our lives,” Mr Bian Liangwei, 27, told The Straits Times.
His older brother was one of the 153 Chinese citizens onboard the plane that went missing on March 8 last year. The 38 Malaysians on the flight comprised the second largest group among the 14 nationalities. At least four times a month, the Hebei native makes a six-hour journey to a temporary contact centre set up by MAS near the Beijing airport, demanding the “truth” from the airline.
Even today, family members remain highly suspicious of the Malaysian government’s handling of the search and have been incensed by what they say is MAS’ callous attitude towards them.
For instance, Malaysia’s declaration in January that the disappearance of MH370 was an “accident” and that all aboard are presumed dead sparked fury among family members. About 30 Chinese family members flew to Kuala Lumpur in February in protest, calling for the declaration to be made void as there has been no evidence of the plane having crashed since no debris had been found.
Many are convinced that the plane was hijacked and passengers are possibly marooned on a deserted island with no contact with the outside world. Their hopes hinge partly on the fact that passengers’ cellphones continued ringing days after the flight went missing - a sign, they believe, that the plane did not crash into the ocean. Their obsession with the ringing phones even prompted telecommunications firm China Mobile to send employees to a recent briefing to answer family members’ technical questions about what might have caused the phenomenon.
According to Chinese family members’ representative Mr Jiang Hui, 41, whose mother Madam Jiang Cuiyun, 71, was on the flight, it is the frequently conflicting information from Malaysia and the government’s inability to be forthcoming that have fuelled conspiracy theories.
Similarly, Kuala Lumpur-based American teacher Sarah Bajc, 48, whose boyfriend Mr Philip Wood was on the flight, has found it difficult to accept the declaration without evidence. The chances of her partner being alive might be tiny but there has been “absolutely no proof to support the official theory”, she said. “There are a lot of scenarios that have survivors being alive that are impossible to rule out at this point,” she told The Straits Times. “I’m just not going to accept a story that’s been told to me without any proof.”
But apart from the growing annoyance with Malaysia, there has been a rising tide of anger among the Chinese next-of-kin against Beijing. Chinese family members say their government has given them little help and has sided with Malaysia on multiple occasions, even using strong-arm tactics to oppress them. This has given rise to speculation that Beijing might also be involved in a “political conspiracy”.
A Mr Li, who did not want to give his full name but whose daughter was on the flight, said hundreds of policemen were called in when family members tried to march to the Malaysian Embassy in protest in late January. “Some of the policemen hit me with their batons and broke my cellphone,” he said. “They have no morals and no sympathy.”
Added Mr Bian: “Family members have no human rights. We are subject to the government’s heavy handedness and control. They keep pressuring us to accept MAS’ compensation.”
But while grief has been debilitating for some, others are slowly picking up the pieces, accepting the initial compensation of US$50,000 (S$68,137) that MAS offered and making plans to soldier on alone. Some have kept a low profile for fear of being branded as traitors who have given up the search for their loved ones by other emotionally-charged relatives.
“It’s not that I don’t want my parents back but I think it’ll take years before we find out the truth of what really happened,” one such Chinese family member told The Straits Times, declining to be named due to the sensitivities of the matter. Both his parents were on the flight.
“I am more rational... There’s no use being angry with MAS because it’s the first time something like this has happened. Family members also need to be realistic and discuss the compensation issue before time runs out,” the 25-year-old student added. He was referring to a two-year deadline from the time the plane went missing for family members to file lawsuits against MAS and the Malaysia government for further compensation.
Under the 1999 accord, the minimum compensation per passenger is about US$175,000 although families can choose to sue for more. MAS crisis director Fuad Sharuji has said the compensation would be more than the amount set in the accord, if the next-of-kin can show the victim was “earning a high income, still young and should get more”.
Others have also taken constructive steps to rebuild their lives as best as they can.
According to Chinese media reports, Madam Zhang Meiling, 65, whose daughter and son-in-law were on the flight, has started learning English in a bid to communicate with her two grandsons. The two boys, previously living in Beijing with their parents, have been cared for by their paternal grandparents in England since May.
Barely a month after moving there, they stopped speaking Chinese, Madam Zhang said in a Vista Magazine article. “Sometimes I am tongue-tied during our weekly video chats... I have only two concerns now: for my daughter and her husband to come home, and to pick up English as quickly as possible so I can talk to my grandchildren.”
Madam Zhang recently forked out almost 15,000 yuan (S$3,263) for 50 intensive one-to-one English lessons - her determination and love for her grandsons making sure that at least one of her hopes might be fulfilled.
Additional reporting by Shannon Teoh in Kuala Lumpur
FOR eight agonising months, Madam Xie Xiucui has lived with her husband by a shallow, rubbish-strewn stream, with a giant sand pile for a view on the dusty outskirts of Beijing. Home is a 15 sq m dingy shack without running water, a far cry from the cleaner and more comfortable 90 sq m house the couple used to live in where they could get water at the turn of a tap.
The Jiangsu natives moved to the Chinese capital last July in a desperate bid to be closer to information on the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370. Their 21-year-old son, Mr Feng Dong, was one of the 153 Chinese citizens aboard the plane that went missing on March 8 last year shortly after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. He was wrapping up his five-month stint in Singapore as a steel worker at a construction site and had transited in the Malaysian capital to catch a flight back to China.
Madam Xie, 44, and her husband Mr Feng Zhishan, 49, had rushed to Beijing when news first broke but were soon persuaded by the authorities to return home as days dragged on to weeks with no sign of the plane being found. “But after we came home, I couldn’t concentrate on anything and cried every day. I suggested we move back to Beijing so that we can at least have access to the latest information, whether good or bad news,” Madam Xie told The Straits Times.
But coming from a small village in Lianyungang in the eastern province of Jiangsu, their unwavering vigil in Beijing with its high cost of living has been a trying one.
The couple fork out 300 yuan (S$65) a month for the house, located next to a sand bank in Chaoyang district and cluttered with construction debris. It was built with an haphazard assortment of bricks, wooden planks and iron sheets. It was Madam Xie’s older brother, who works in the area, who put them in touch with the landlord.
The couple burn coal for heating in Beijing’s frigid winter and, with no proper sanitation system, have dug a hole in the ground next to their shack for use as a toilet. Their living quarters are also so secluded that it has no official address. They trudge through ankle-high dirt, sand and broken bits of cement daily to get to the nearest main street.
Madam Xie, who used to work for a toy manufacturer, said they have already run out of savings. But her husband’s odd-job work at a furniture factory in Beijing gives them a monthly income of about 1,000 yuan that tides them over for now. Madam Xie herself took on various part-time jobs ranging from washing dishes to cleaning the streets but her poor health left her with swollen hands and an aching back. Unable to sleep because of debilitating pain, she eventually quit.
“During those times I worked very hard because the harder I worked, the more tired I’d be, so then at least I wouldn’t think about my son,” she said.
But for the couple, these hardships are not in vain. They cling to the hope that the younger Mr Feng is still alive - almost a year after the plane vanished. “Even if I have to sleep on the streets, I’m willing to do so. For the sake of my children, I am willing to endure any suffering,” Madam Xie said. “I’m not going home, if I leave Beijing now, I’d feel as if I’m abandoning him.”
"I told my daughter I'm not going home. If I do, I'll feel worse and I won't be able to stand it," she said, referring to the younger Feng's twin sister. "I'll feel suffocated and I'll miss your brother more."
For the past eight months, Madam Xie Xiucui has lived with her husband in a 15 sq m dingy shack without running water on the outskirts of Beijing - a far cry from the 90 sq m house the couple used to live in where water could be had at a turn of a tap. The Jiangsu natives moved to Beijing last July to be closer to information on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at least one of them makes a three-hour journey by bus, train and on foot to a temporary contact centre set up by MAS in an aviation logistics park near the Beijing airport.
There, they demand answers, afraid that if they stop their regular visits, MAS will cease the search for their loved ones. The couple even spent Chinese New Year in Beijing.
“We all believe they’re taken hostage or they’ve landed on an island and cannot communicate with us. How can we believe the plane has crashed when there’s no proof of debris,” Madam Xie said. “We’re not asking for food or shelter now. All we want is for MAS to find our loved ones and we’ll persevere to the end to find the truth.”
She added: "Sometimes, I talk to myself and I say to him: "Son, please let me dream of you so I can see you". But for the past two months, I just haven't been able to dream of him."
IT used to be the time of the year Ms Yang Rong looked forward to. But not this year.
In the midst of Chinese New Year celebrations, the mood at a house in a quiet corner of Majiazhuang village in northern Hebei’s Dingzhou city was sombre. There were no traditional red couplets pasted on its rusty gates and no plans for a fancy reunion dinner when The Straits Times visited the family before Chinese New Year.
Almost a year after the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 vanished with her husband onboard, Ms Yang, 28, had steeled herself for another round of heartbreak as his painful absence was felt even more strongly in the midst of the festivities in the village of just 2,600 people,
"Last year, we were waiting for him to come home before we killed our last chicken but he never made it back,” she told The Straits Times. “It’s very painful to celebrate the new year as there’s no meaning to it if he’s not around. We’ll just mark it simply. Without any income, we also don’t want to spend too much.”
Her husband, Mr Wang Yongqiang, 29, was the sole breadwinner of the family. He was a construction worker in Singapore and was heading home on Flight MH370 - with a new gold ring as a gift for Ms Yang - at the end of his year-long contract. In the year that has passed since the plane went missing on March 8 last year enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the lives of his loved ones have been in upheaval.
Ms Yang and her six-year-old daughter Wang Shuhan have moved out of the house she used to share with her father-in-law, Mr Wang Jiancheng. They now live with her mother in a neighbouring village about 10km away. Every weekend, however, they come back to visit the elder Mr Wang, 57, staying in the couple’s old bedroom where framed wedding photos still hang on its walls.
Apart from having her mother help look after her daughter, Ms Yang said she made the move to shield her daughter from news of the tragedy. “Her schoolmates were talking about the incident and I wanted to transfer her to another kindergarten where people wouldn’t talk,” she said. “I haven’t decided what to tell her yet. For now, we just say daddy will come back when she grows up.”
Reality also hits the hardest when either mother or daughter falls ill. “When we see other families having husbands or fathers taking them to the clinic, it makes us feel especially terrible,” Ms Yang said.
The loss has also been especially tough on the elder Mr Wang, a retiree who has difficulty walking. “Yongqiang was my only son... No one cares for me and I'm all alone now,” he told The Straits Times. “Other families have happy reunions over Chinese New Year but our family does not have a son back. It’s a very difficult time.”
As the weeks drag into months and search efforts yield nothing, financial burdens are also starting to weigh on their minds. The family is surviving on savings Mr Wang had sent back previously and on the financial help of $20,000 given by her husband’s former employer, Singapore construction firm Chip Eng Seng. While Ms Yang is considering getting a job, she faces the dilemma of how this might affect her daughter. “Already, she doesn’t have a father and is so pitiful. I don’t want her to be without a mother too,” she said. “But in a couple years, when she’s in primary school, hopefully I can find work then.”
In the midst of the Spring Festival celebrations, the mood at a house in a quiet corner of Majiazhuang village in northern Hebei’s Dingzhou city is sombre. Almost a year after the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 vanished together with her husband, Ms Yang Rong, 28, is steeling herself for another around of heartbreak as his painful absence is made even more searing in the midst of the festivities.
The family is unwilling to take the compensation being offered by MAS because that would mean they relinquish their right to sue the airline. They also believe the younger Mr Wang might still be alive and that the truth is being hidden from them.
“We haven’t had any income since last March but we will never take that compensation as it equals selling my husband’s life for money,” Ms Yang said. "We want to make sure people are held responsible for this. My daughter and I will always be waiting for him.”
LIKE many of those who lost family on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 a year ago, Ms Maira Elizabeth Nari lived the first few weeks in hope that her father, chief steward Andrew Nari, would return.
But with a maturity that belied her age, the teenager greeted Prime Minister Najib Razak's announcement on March 24 last year that the plane’s journey had “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean with a heartbreaking tweet: “God loves you more, Daddy.”
In the days following the tragedy, the 19-year-old moved many with her tweets which spoke of her love for her father, and how she was torn between hoping that a miracle might happen and coming to terms with the official conclusion that none on board MH370 survived the crash. Many also praised Ms Nari for her courage and positivity in refusing to lash out at the authorities.
The teenager said the past year had been an emotional roller coaster that got "harder day by day”. But she looked to God as the “only answer” to find strength. "God knows better,” she told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview. “Deep down, I still have hope. But around 80 per cent (I know) they'll never come back."
Still, she continues to leave messages for her father on her social media accounts. On Feb 22, she posted a touching tribute to her father who would have turned 50 on that day. "I remember very well, the moments we had on your last birthday... That happy laughing face of yours, happy birthday daddy!" Ms Nari, who has a younger brother, wrote on her Instagram account with a picture of her father playing in the snow. "We miss you terribly and we love you always."
Amid the difficult times, the family has found encouragement and solace, thanks to kind souls who responded to Ms Nari's tweets. For instance, three Malaysian Liverpool fans sent her a replica jersey signed by Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and several players, after she tweeted that her father was a big fan of the football club. In the tweet on March 16 last year, she wrote: "Daddy, Liverpool is winning the game! Come home, so you can watch the game! You never miss watching the game. It’s your first time."
The teenager, who has a Twitter following of more than 96,000 for her account @gorgxous_, told The Straits Times: “My dad is a huge fan of Liverpool. Mom was the happiest though (with the jersey). I was happy too but sad, for dad does not have the chance to see or touch the shirt."
Ms Nari said support from her boyfriend, whom she met at college after he double-parked his car in front of hers, also helped her cope with the trying times. She described him as having “98 per cent of my dad's attitude... very supportive and he helps a lot”.
MS Sarah Bajc was about to embark on a new adventure in Kuala Lumpur with the love of her life when boyfriend Philip Wood, 50, disappeared on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Ms Sarah Bajc with her boyfriend Philip Wood, one of the passengers on the ill-fated MH370. She has become the most visible and vocal critic of the Malaysian authorities among those who have lost loved ones on the ill-fated flight.
Both US citizens, they met in 2011 when they were working in Beijing. Mr Wood, a Texas native, had started his job with IBM Malaysia and found a new apartment in Kuala Lumpur. He was on his way to Beijing to help Ms Bajc, who was teaching there, pack up the last of her belongings.
The new start they were looking forward to ended before it began. And Ms Bajc, 48, was left in limbo. “Everything was rolling in a really nice direction... so when he went missing it was a really difficult decision with what I was going to do,” she told The Straits Times.
After the MH370 crash, the former technology executive said her school in Beijing told her she could stay on and her loved ones asked her to return to the United States. But she made the big decision to move to Malaysia as planned. “It was important to continue what we had started," said Ms Bajc, who is living in their apartment in Kuala Lumpur. "I expected they would find the plane... so I needed to go forward with the thing that I had planned because I wanted to keep a life going with a place ready for him when he came back. But the longer time has gone by, the harder it is to keep that place open for him.”
She has become the most visible and vocal critic of the Malaysian authorities among those who have lost loved ones on the ill-fated flight. When not teaching at a British private school, she has dedicated thousands of hours to seeking an answer. She crowd-funded money to hire a leading international private investigator and conducted hundreds of interviews to keep the media spotlight on the authorities whom she insists are hiding the truth.
“No debris and no radar contact are harder to believe than faked data because governments fake stuff all the time,” she said. The private investigators have found nothing so far. “If it was really an accident, they would've found things that supported it... a trail of crumbs,” she said. Instead, all leads were “scrubbed clean”, she claimed. Her private investigators told her their regular sources refused to talk to them. "All of this points to the fact that what they are telling us isn't true,” she said. “I just don't know what is true."
And after a year, Ms Bajc is running out of ideas. “But the idea of quitting hasn't surfaced,” she insisted. “The scariest thing I can think of is just never having an answer. If I knew that Philip was dead, I could mourn him properly... I wouldn't have to keep holding him alive every single day. It’s exhausting and it's a constant pain.”
THE man leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 says he believes the plane will be found in the next two months.
Mr Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which is overseeing the unprecedented operation, told The Straits Times: “Our expectation is that we will find this aircraft.”
The operation’s four vessels are on track to finish scanning the remaining 60 per cent of the target zone by May. So far, the underwater search in the southern Indian Ocean has covered 24,000 sq km since October but no trace of the missing Boeing 777 has been found. Despite delays and equipment failures, the Australian authorities insisted the search would cover the remaining 36,000 sq km by May.
Speaking ahead of the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of the doomed flight, Mr Dolan denied claims that Fugro, the Dutch company hired to conduct much of the search, was not up to the task. The painstaking search, estimated to cost A$120 million (S$127.7 million), is the most complex operation of its kind in history, he said. “We know that this is a long haul. We are working with an area that was totally unknown on a scale that has never been attempted before. We have a large search area and we still have a long way to go.”
Hand-written notes on a window aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for MH370, in this March 22, 2014, file photo. The notes instruct a crew member on how to report the sighting of debris in the southern Indian Ocean. — PHOTO: REUTERS
The search has focused on a remote part of the ocean along the so-called seventh arc – a route assessed by experts and based on the plane’s satellite communications data and its last-known speeds and locations.
Mr Dolan said the four search ships have spotted nothing resembling debris. Or, as he put it, “there have been no ‘aha’ moments”. He said: “We have not got anything that would put us into the ‘pay serious attention category’ yet. We have found various geological formations that were worthy of a bit of closer interest but nothing more significant than that.”
Mr Dolan dismissed claims the bureau is searching in the wrong place. The initial underwater search involved two Fugro vessels and a ship provided by Malaysia, Go Phoenix. They have trawled the ocean, combing the search area in paths that have been likened to mowing the lawn. The ships use sonar scanning equipment and can search a strip about 1.5km wide. The authorities ensure the strips overlap so that no section of the ocean floor is missed.
In January, a third Fugro vessel joined the search carrying an underwater vehicle which was able to scan areas that could not be observed by the towed equipment on the other ships.
Analysts have pointed out that one of the biggest risks is that a search boat goes over the wreckage without detecting it. In such a scenario, the hunt could continue for years. But Mr Dolan insists that this is unlikely and the equipment would detect the plane, if it is there. “It is no surprise at this point that we have not found the plane,” he said. “I remain confident that if the aircraft is within the priority search area we will find it.”
The cost of the search has been jointly funded by Australia and Malaysia. The additional ship provided by Malaysia cost an estimated A$25 million. China also assisted with the mapping. The next big question is what will happen if the plane is not found by May. Mr Dolan said: “Governments will need to decide what happens next.”
Always mindful of the families of the passengers, he said he recognised that his call for patience was “not something that families like to hear”. “We want to assist in solving the puzzle as well as giving answers to the families. Finding out what happened is very important not just in solving the mystery but also potentially in preventing the recurrence of an event like this in the future.”
He added: “At this one year anniversary, we have a clear message to the families: We remain totally committed to finding the aircraft.”