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A small group of protesters stand outside the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur demanding action against those responsible for shooting down Flight MH17. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)
A small group of protesters stand outside the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur demanding action against those responsible for shooting down Flight MH17. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)

Two airline tragedies leave Malaysians asking: ‘Why us?’ Add to ...

Hariyati Abdul Majid makes regular dashes for Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

She uses its sleek terminals to fly to Somalia and Kashmir, Tamil Tiger-controlled areas in Sri Lanka, tsunami-ravaged Indonesia and parts of Myanmar and the Phillipines battered by guerrilla fighting. The soft-spoken psychology professor is a member of Mercy Malaysia, a group that counsels those suffering from the rending grief that comes with wars and disasters.

Four months ago, Dr. Hariyati was dispatched once again to Malaysia’s main airport – but this time she never left.

Instead of boarding a Malaysia Airlines flight, she was assigned to help the cabin crew of the national carrier deal with the devastating loss of Flight 370, which had mysteriously vanished en route to Beijing. There were 239 passengers on board, including 12 employees from the airline, whose staff are so tight-knit that some have bought houses next to each other and become neighbours, as well.

Now, all of these people had simply disappeared, almost assuredly dead, although without death’s finality.

The search for that plane was still ongoing when another Malaysia Airlines plane, Flight 17, crashed en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last week, shot from the sky over eastern Ukraine.

Dr. Hariyati and her team once again rushed to the airport – this time at 1 a.m. – to break the news both to disembarking Malaysia Airlines staff, who had been airborne as their colleagues were downed, as well as those who, immediately after hearing about the crash, still had to prepare for takeoff into what now seemed like increasingly unfriendly skies.

“Many of them were already emotionally drained,” says Dr. Hariyati, 44, as she sits at a small canteen table at the airport before breaking her Ramadan fast with her colleagues. “MH17 opened up a new floodgate.”

Because Dr. Hariyati didn’t leave the airport for two-and-a-half days, she didn’t notice at first the posts on her Facebook page asking whether it was true that she, too, had lost someone in the crash – former student Mohd Ali Md Salim.

The 30-year-old had left for Rotterdam to do his PhD. But the two remained in touch; Mr. Salim had showed Dr. Hariyati’s parents around Amsterdam while she was at a conference there. Many on the Mercy Malaysia team also knew the young man. He had been flying home to Malaysia, and was uncomfortable about the flight; before leaving, he posted a short video from his cabin on social media: “Feeling a little nervous,” he wrote in the caption.

Leaving even grief counselors grieving, the two catastrophic events of the past four months – their sheer unlikeliness, their sheer horror – have become a sort of prolonged Malaysian 9/11, the kind of searing tragedy that not only forces a country to deal openly with private pain, but to reflect on collective problems and national identity. The question now is whether citizens in this relatively young country, which gained independence in 1957, will use this opportunity to address issues such as ongoing ethnic tensions, cronyism, and an autocratic goverment, and to come together in a new way – or whether this nation of 30 million will simply mourn, shrug off the tragedies as a matter of fate, and move on as before.

“As a nation, were’ still an adolescent,” says Dr. Hariyati. “This tragedy has happened at a time when Malaysia is trying to consolidate our identity. Maybe this is God telling us to stop our bickering.”

This latest tragedy has at least offered Prime Minister Najib Razak a second chance at shaping Malaysia’s reputation – as well as his own.

On the Monday after the crash of MH17, he called a hastily arranged press conference well after midnight – not at his office, but at his white-washed palatial mansion in Petrajaya, just outside Kuala Lumpur, where the driveway down a palm-fringed road is protected by a massive gate bearing the tigers of the country’s coat of arms. His podium was set up in a regal room with five chandeliers.

Everything about the setting implied that, this time, Mr. Najib was in control: While Western leaders were lashing out at Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government is widely suspected to be behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine who are believed to have shot down MH17, Mr. Najib’s defense and transport ministers had been dispatched to Kiev – and he had called journalists to announce a surprising deal that he had personally brokered with insurgent leader Alexander Borodai to retrieve the black boxes and, most importantly, the bodies of the 43 Malaysians on board.

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