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MH17: a note of sorrow from a Dutch traveller

Flying at 30,000ft in a metal tube, we somehow feel safe. The disaster in Ukraine brings the dangers into cold relief.
Last modified: 20 Jul 2014 09:19

How many times did I fly from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and onwards to Jakarta in the past 17 years? Maybe 30 times, or more. Comfortably locked up inside the plane with my music, magazines and movies I have always felt a strange sense of protection. As soon as I boarded I somehow entered a different world completely unrelated to the world outside.

A world with happy families leaving on an exotic holiday, children comfortably dressed in jogging outfits with their toys tightly in their arms. A nice mix of European and Asian travelers, mostly Dutch and Indonesian. A world of anticipation, excitement and brotherhood. We are all in this "ship" together for the next 13 hours so let's make the most of it.

How many times did I tell young Dutch travellers about my new life on the other side of the globe? I made new friends at 33,000 feet and tired my best Indonesian on passengers next to me. It’s that small world so familiar to me that I saw on images from the crash site of MH17. A travel book on Bali, toothpaste bought in a Dutch shop, a magazine I would always buy at Schiphol airport. This little protected world has for once met the real world outside and is now in shatters on a flowery field in eastern Ukraine.

I believe most air travellers like to imagine themselves only in relation to the inside of the plane. Our brain somehow protects us from imagining flying over rough mountains, dark wide oceans, violent territories. If we would see ourselves in a small tube travelling above all these potential danger zones we probably would not fly this much.  And the truth is these worlds hardly ever come together. We usually land at the other end without being "touched" by the world beneath.

I recall only a few times I thought about the wars and conflicts going on down there and about the possibility they could hit me at this height. I remember years ago finding it strange my plane flew over Afghanistan while a war was going on. I thought the pilot would probably know best.

Somehow these last few days many images come back to me. One of the strongest is the British girl I met just after the bomb attack in Bali in 2002. Her party dress partially burned, make up on her dirty face as a last reminder of the evening before. She was looking for her boyfriend who probably was one of the 202 dead, mostly young tourists.

I thought about her after seeing images of another holiday brutally shot into pieces at that field in Donetsk.

Of course the terrorist attack in Bali was different than what happened to MH17. But similarly two very different worlds came together. A world that was imagined safe, happy and full of expectations and a world of hatred, vengeance and conflict. I have regularly traveled back and forth between these two worlds, always comfortably in a position to "escape".

But during these past painful and sorrowful days I start to think that we should realise that there is no such thing as two separate worlds.