Three weeks ago, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed over Hrabove, Ukraine. Believed to have been shot down by pro-Russian separatists, the deaths of the 283 passengers and 15 crew members makes the incident the sixth deadliest air disaster in history.
What began as an isolated struggle over the Crimean region in Ukraine has now affected nations from around the world: 193 Dutch nationals, 43 Malaysians (including the 15 crewmembers), 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, one Canadian and one New Zealander perished in flight.
Our hearts are with the victims of this awful event and their families whose own grief has been magnified by the controversy surrounding the site. News organizations have shown images of rebels wandering through the debris, compromising the evidence and looting through the wreckage. International investigators struggled to reach the scene of the crash with fighting in the surrounding areas. Such reports have made a horrific loss felt that much more acutely as families struggle for answers and long to have their loved ones returned to them.
Certainly such a tragedy reminds us of similar heartaches felt by family members of 9/11 victims. We call to mind the friendship and support the Netherlands offered us after the horrific events of September 11, thirteen years ago.
Flowers outside the memorial service in Amersfoort, Netherlands
In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, the Dutch owner of B&K Flowerbulbs, Hans van Waardenburg, donated half-a-million bulbs to be planted around the city of New York. While tulips are the iconic Holland flower, van Waardenburg pointed out, “The great thing about daffodils is that not only do they come back every year, but they multiply.” Supplemented by an extra 500,000 from the city of Rotterdam, the bulbs flooded New York in the aftermath of the attacks, paralleling the global outpouring of support for the hurting city and nation.
Daffodils planted in New York City as part of the Daffodil Project
The Daffodil Project quickly attracted thousands of volunteers and together they planted bulbs throughout the five boroughs. The sunny yellow flowers, the color of remembrance, are scattered around the Soundview, Williamsbridge, Clinton, Ridgewood, Jackson Heights, Harlem, Chelsea and Chinatown neighborhoods. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg named the daffodils the official flower of New York City - a fitting title because, as van Waardenburg predicted, as many as ten million daffodils may have sprouted throughout the city ten years after the attacks.
The loss of life on September 11 was astounding. But on September 12th, we began rebuilding. The daffodils are small memorials to those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters lost. Every year more and more bloom, evoking a sense of renewal and perseverance. The old ones live to see another season as new flowers appear alongside them. While New York was still hurting, these daffodils symbolized resilience and continuity.
Just as people from over 90 countries were affected by the attacks on September 11th, the people of the Netherlands have shared the grief of the Australian, Malaysian, British, German, Belgium, Canadian, New Zealand, and Filipino people also on board MH17. Such support is pervasive, evidenced by the spectacular memorials set up around the country: in Hilversum, in the Amsterdam airport and outside the St. Yuris Church in Amersfoot. Candles, photographs, and of course, flowers are laid down to pay respect to the deceased. Those who may not have been personally affected continue to pay their respects and look for ways to ease the pain.
On July 23rd, the Dutch held a day of mourning for the first 40 victims returning to the Netherlands, while 200 victims remained in Ukraine. The commemoration was repeated when the next group of remains wasreturned, and will be again until all the remains are found and safely transported. As Anderson Cooper stated during a broadcast of a memorial service:
“It is just the beginning for the family members. It is just one stop on the road of grief, a road that will be long, that there is no timetable for, that there is no roadmap for. Their grief is shared, obviously, by many around the world, by all of us, certainly on this day, but in days to come as people get on with their lives and return to their work. It is those family members who will bear that grief in their hearts and in their lives for the rest of their days.”
Family members of 9/11 victims know this road well. On September 11, van Waardenburg used daffodils to console New York the best way he knew how. Thirteen years later, the symbolism remains. Flowers offer a glimpse of nature’s beauty in a world that is capable of causing so much pain. As the Dutch minister said at the Amersfoot memorial mass, “In the end, love will prevail.” While the world can be cruel in unthinkable ways, no matter the circumstance, human beings will always reach out to one another in a time of loss, share in their pain, and unite in grief. Flowers, a fragile token of remembrance in an ever-changing world, will forever be exchanged as a sign of sympathy and mutual respect for the preciousness of human life.