Six years ago, Dutchman Anton Kotte lost his eldest son, daughter-in-law, and six-year-old grandson in one day. They died on July 17, 2014, when MH17 passenger flight, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down in the sky over Donbas.
Since then, his life has been divided into the before and the after. He promised himself to do everything possible to punish those responsible for the deaths of his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson.
I interviewed Anton Kotte in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, not far from the house where his son lived with the family. Anton Kotte got out of the car with a small blue backpack in his hands. There was inscription on the backpack – Remko – the name of his grandson. This backpack was the only thing found after a Buk missile destroyed MH17 flight. There were 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board, and all of them died.
The international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) reported that the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down from a Buk missile system that belongs to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces stationed in the city of Kursk.
The investigation considers three Russian citizens and one Ukrainian citizen to be involved in the transportation and combat use of Buk missile system: Igor Girkin (Strelkov), former colonel in Russia's FSB intelligence service and former so-called defense minister of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic"; Sergey Dubinskiy, general (at the time of downing – colonel) of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and head of the so-called "Main Intelligence Directorate of the Donetsk People’s Republic"; Oleg Pulatov, lieutenant colonel of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces; Ukrainian civilian Leonid Kharchenko who fought on the side of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic."
On March 9, 2020, hearings in the MH17 trial began at the Schiphol Judicial Complex in the Netherlands. None of the four suspects appeared in court. Two Dutch lawyers represent the interests of one of the four suspects, Oleg Pulatov, who expressed a desire to participate in the trial. The trial was adjourned due to an outbreak of coronavirus in March. The break in the court hearings lasted two and a half months. On June 8, 2020, the second block of court hearings in the MH17 trial began. Prosecutors revealed details of the investigation in the courtroom. In particular, it was noted that there is a witness who saw the Buk missile system and the launch of a missile. Intercepted telephone conversations, in which the militants could be identified, were also heard. The hearing was adjourned for a week, until June 22, 2020, to give the defense time to prepare.
The day before the court hearing on June 22, MH17 Aircraft Disaster Foundation treasurer Anton Kotte shared his impressions of the trial, his expectations from it, whom he blames for the tragedy, and how he overcomes the pain of loss every day in an exclusive interview with Ukrinform.
UNDAMAGED GRANDSON’S BACKPACK
- Oscar, Miranda, Remko – these are the names of your son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. Their names are engraved on a bench set up near the house in Eindhoven where they lived. Tell us about this place. Why is it so special to you?
- We are sitting here at a playground of the neighbourhood where they lived – those three our loved ones. That was a very close family to all those people over here, and the place where they lived is called a White Village because, as you can see, all the houses are painted white. They lived one block behind me, and Remko played at this playground after school time. After the crash, the whole neighbourhood decided to do something to remember them forever. And they started to raise funds to give a new playground toy here. And it was completely funded, inclusive the bench where we are sitting on now. You can see the names of those three on this bench. And this was funded by the people of this area. At the end of 2014, the playground was restored, the bench was placed and also the new merry-go-round behind you, and it was opened by Lord Mayor of Eindhoven. And every year we come here on July 17 to put sunflowers on this coach. They had here a lovely time, the well-educated surrounding, lovely friends. There was a smooth atmosphere, and they [Oscar, Miranda, Remko] wanted to stay here for a long time but… some people decided there should be another way.
- Has this playground become your place of remembrance?
- My wife and I were here several times. We felt that this was their place, they were very happy here. And there were also many of their friends here. This is our remembrance place. And the same situation we had, where we met a year before, at the memorial statue near the airport of Eindhoven, because we had been there when all the victims arrived at the [military airbase in] Eindhoven. So we have a connection to that place, that’s why I did a lot of work to found the memorial at the Eindhoven Airport.
- You came to the interview with probably the most valuable thing for you right now. Who owned this backpack?
- It is a backpack of Remko, my grandson. You see the label of the airlines, there are no scratches on it. And as for the content of this backpack, his pencils, toys, his reading books – all were there, complete and without scratches. And you have to realize the distance of more than ten kilometres from heaven to earth.
- It's really incredible. Mr. Kotte, please tell us how the personal belongings of MH17 passengers were searched. How did you manage to get your grandson's backpack?
- All the relatives got a catalogue with all photographs of all the belongings and devices. But we found nothing, no things of Oscar, Remko, or Miranda. After that catalogue was closed, a month or two later, we got a telephone call from the liaison officers of the police: “We have found something for you. Remko’s backpack. Do you want to have it?” Of course, we wanted to have it. So they came to Eindhoven with a box and a backpack in that box. That was a miracle because everything in it was without a scratch. My wife was sitting on the coach many evenings with this backpack on her lap to realize it was Remko’s. It is a real value for us, we have a little bit from him very close by.
- Apart from pictures of personal belongings, what other pictures or videos were you shown?
- We also saw pictures of people leaving the airport. All the relatives had an opportunity to watch those pictures. We saw happy faces of people because they were going on holidays. Remko was walking in front of his parents, he had a teddy bear in his hands [and he was saying] “I go on holiday”. You can’t hear what he says, but you see his lips and you can read it. They were so excited that they go on holidays after so many years. And that moment you realize that they never knew what would happen. We knew that when we saw those pictures…
On Saturday, 12 July 2014, my son Oscar returned from a business trip to Shanghai, China. And that day was my birthday. I turned 70 years old on that day. So the next day, on Sunday, there was a party with the whole family to celebrate my birthday and that was the last time when we were together because on Thursday they left by MH17 to Bali. Oscar told me that he doubted a little bit whether he should have flown from China to Bali, and Miranda and son could come from Amsterdam to Bali so that would save a lot of travelling time.
- What did you answer him?
- I said: “You should not do that. You have to go on holidays together and come back together. So he did and I’m very happy he did. They were very happy, and I have a picture of them in the airplane 15 minutes before they left the gate. They were very happy together, and that picture is always on my mind. They were happy people.
- How did you find out about the tragedy?
- That day, on Thursday, 17 July 2014, children went to the airport with his parents-in-law. They dropped them off at 9:30 in the morning, and my wife and I had to pick them when they return. That was a beautiful day, Iryna. It was very warm, we were sitting on the terrace outside, and at about 6 o’clock we had a barbecue for two us. A glass of wine, lovely weather… And at the end of that dinner, at about 18:30, I opened my iPad and a big photo of plane of Malaysia Airlines immediately came up. And I immediately said to myself: “That’s not good.” I left the table in a rush, my wife asked me “What’s a matter?” I switched on the television and I saw immediately that news broadcast had been ongoing from 16:00. I screamed to my wife: “Plane has crashed!” She asked: “What plane?” I said that it was MH17. We could not say a word for a long time, we watched TV, and after one hour we said to each other: “We’ve lost them.”
I started to make phone calls to other families and to the family-in-law, of course. One hour later, all the family came to Eindhoven. We looked at each other in a complete disaster but we had a little hope. Perhaps, the plane was overbooked. But, on the other hand, that wasn’t realistic, because in that case, they would make a phone call, of course. That phone call did not come. So, at the end of the day, it was 23:00, I took an initiative to phone an emergency number from the Ministry of Justice and Safety. I announce myself as a family of people on board of that plane, I mentioned their names, dates of birth, and they said: “Thank you very much, we are not allowed to say anything to you.” Well, I said that I just wanted to be helpful because I knew it was very complicated to get the passenger list complete. On Friday morning, again I tried to get to the emergency number and again heard that they were not allowed to say anything. I was very upset. Why do you have this number if you are not allowed to say anything? What’s the purpose of that number, you know? The whole day we heard nothing. So, at the end of the day, at midnight, I decided to call Malaysia Airlines in Kuala Lumpur. So I did. In five minutes, I knew that they really were on board. And on Saturday, the next day, we got a message that a passenger list was complete. I phoned again that emergency number and they said to me: “Well, Mr. Kotte, we completed the passenger list and transferred it to the police station, so we have nothing to say about that.” On Sunday, we met with police liaison officers for the first time, and they solved all our questions.
- How the remains of the tragedy victims were delivered?
- There was a big gap between the downing and the time when first officers could get to the site. The local fire brigade was the first to get there and they get the remains together, that was the first action. But there was a gap between those two points so you never know is everything found what had to be found. Finally, the bodies were delivered to Eindhoven, not Amsterdam as its airport was too busy with other planes. So they decided to send all remains to Eindhoven.
- Did you see the bodies?
- No, only coffins. They carried all the coffins from the plane in the cars. At first, seventy victims were delivered, sometimes there were only five victims, then thirty. A different number of coffins was delivered all 12 times. But all the bodies came to Eindhoven. Everybody in the world saw those pictures. And then the bodies were examined.
WHEN PARENTS BURY THEIR CHILDREN
- How has your life changed after the tragedy?
- Well, that’s a long story. I needed more than a half year to get all things together about what I’m going to do now. I had to work. I’m still working. My chairman said I could take my time and return when I would be able to continue to work. You have to realize that intentions to do something are the best medicine. I had to make up my mind because people were waiting for my decisions. So, at the end of that year, in December, I decided it was time to go on. My first trip was from Amsterdam to Vienna.
- Were you afraid of flying?
- No, I wasn’t afraid. I made a decision for myself. If you take step A, you have to take step B, Iryna. So I went to the airport, went to the gate, took my seat in the plane. But after the take-off, when we were in the air, I had a kind of fear. That took about 15 minutes and then it was over. I was happy I took that step.
- How was your wife?
- That’s a tragedy. My wife had so much fear and so much anger in her body. She once said: “It is not normal that parents bury their children.” She could not handle it in a proper way.
FIRST STEP AND A LOT OF EVIDENCE
- Who is guilty of this tragedy?
- I can’t say who is guilty, but as you know the second block of court hearings has started and we will continue on Monday, June 22. Last week, everyone in the court got a lot of information about the investigation results of the Joint Investigation Team, and the officers told us so many details, and some things are very curious. It had been said that Russians would cooperate, but in the end, they do not cooperate with the investigation team. They also sent fake information. One of the most curious examples of the fake news they sent, was the [satellite] pictures of that day, July 17. They checked those photos Russians sent, those photos were checked by the national forensic institute and the national weather forecast organization. They discovered that the photos were not of July 17, but of July 16. They could prove that because they checked the weather circumstances on July 17 and July 16. It’s an example. There was so much detailed information on the table, even conspiracy theories were examined: there was no bomb aboard, there was no air carrier in the air that could shoot MH17. They examined all possibilities to focus completely on the real circumstances. There was a missile shot in the direction of the plane. And they can prove it now.
- From time to time, Russian media, Dutch bloggers, and so-called independent journalists make statements, make movies, and try to question the investigation results. How do you feel when you read, see another fake?
- Many people tell something about this trial from the Russian side. Perhaps, they believe in their own nonsense. They try to question the results of the investigation, to refute all the evidence against Russia. Perhaps, they are paid from some sources.
- Does it hurt when you read or hear any fake or distorted information about MH17 tragedy?
- Yes. Do you have a Twitter account?
- Yes, I have.
- I advise you to switch it off. It’s a medium where everybody makes the most exceptional remarks about everything in the world, but it’s only exchange of opinions, you know. Those people say what they want to say, nothing is proved what they say.
- You have not missed any court hearing. As you mentioned, the hearings resume on June 22 after a week-long break. How do you feel in court? What are your impressions of the trial?
- A few days before a court hearing, I already feel some tension. I feel when the next meeting will take place. It was the beginning of March, and after coming to court I felt excited about how everything was organized, there were so many people, so much attention to the trial, that at some point you get lost, and it seems that you no longer understand what it is about. So much effort has been made. I was so impressed with the results presented by the prosecutors that I raised my thumbs several times while sitting in the courtroom. And I told myself that this is the first step and there is a lot of evidence, and I wonder what the next step will be. So everything is moving in the right direction. It is our obligation, as relatives who lost our loved ones, to bring this trial to an end. I said to myself that it was my responsibility to people whom I loved and whom I lost to do everything I can to gain justice in the end. And when the trial started at the beginning of March, we became a little bit closer. And I do hope that the next days of the trial will bring us closer. And that will be very satisfying for me and a kind of justice to all the victims.
Iryna Drabok, The Hague
Photo credit: Iryna Drabok