One year ago Sunday, Malaysia Airlines’ Flight MH370 disappeared en route to Beijing. The psychic scars have yet to begin to heal even as most in the city’s expat community have moved on.
Most affected in this tragedy have been local Chinese, who made up the bulk of the passenger list, and news reports from Monday morning indicate that about 30 family members showed up at the Lama Temple Sunday to pray and entered in pairs while others waited outside.
But Beijing’s expat community was also hit by MH370. Two teen students from Lycée Français International de Pékin (the French School) and their mother are among those missing, as are the parents of a former grade school student at BCIS. The partner of a former expat staff member at WAB who long called Beijing their home is also among the missing.
In many ways, Beijing’s naturally transitory expat community has moved on and put the incident behind them: none of the schools planned memorials marking the occasion.
Most expat relatives of MH370 passengers have since left Beijing. Ghyslain Wattrelos, the father and husband of the French expats that are among the missing, now lives in Paris. The children of missing BCIS parents Bai Xiaomo and Muktesh Mukherjee eventually moved to Mumbai to live with their grandparents. Sarah Bajc, a former Beijing expat teacher at WAB and partner of the missing Philip Wood, is now based in Kuala Lumpur.
But while their connections to Beijing have been severed, they have not been silent. Bajc and Wattrelos in particular have been among the most active voices in pushing for a resolution of the mystery of what happened to MH370.
Bajc has been perhaps the most persistent English voice in the MH370 dialogue. She regularly writes on the “Finding Philip Wood” Facebook page (VPN required), which she founded. On Thursday she posted a link to a documentary about the heartbroken family members, along with the caption “we cannot forget …”
And on Friday she linked to a recent news article that described the family members’ struggles with “ambiguous loss,” along with her pointed criticism of the investigation and her fears of a cover-up. She has voiced similar criticisms throughout most of the investigation.
Meanwhile, Wattrelos is distraught about how quick the authorities appear to be moving on. In an interview with The New York Times published on Friday, Wattrelos took issue with the Malaysian government’s recent announcement that the disappearance was an accident, and that the passengers relatives could now finally apply for compensation and death certificates.
He was quoted as saying: “How dare they say it was an accident, just like that? They would not be offering us death certificates if they didn’t know that my wife and children are dead. That’s the part I believe. But if they know that much, what else do they know? And why aren’t they telling us?”
Wattrelos has also been quite persistent with tributes to his lost loved ones. He recently posted a link to a story about the missing flight on his Facebook page, writing that: “We cannot pass up the anniversary without reacting.” But there has been another milestone that Wattrelos was even more intent on commemorating: his missing son’s birthday. On February 2, Ghyslain wrote a long, heartfelt tribute to Hadrien. In it he described celebrating Hadrien’s birthday in Beijing the year prior, adding that it was the last time that the entire family had been together.
Wattrelos’ anguished comments have been far less frequent than his statements of anger. On late Friday afternoon Beijing time he took to Facebook again, posting a link to an interview that he had given to a French newscast, where he questioned the integrity of the investigation for the missing flight.
The New York Times noted that Wattrelos has banded together with Bajc and a few of the other MH370 relatives to compel a whistleblower to reveal any details about the search’s flaws. They raised USD 100,000 for the effort last year, using the money to hire private investigators, and hope to begin a similar fundraiser soon. Wattrelos adds: “If we offer a million, maybe someone will speak up."
Meanwhile, relatives of the missing flight’s Chinese passengers have been far more prominent. This is not surprising because of the sheer number of Chinese passengers onboard, making up two-thirds of the manifest. A recent New York Times article described a handful of the MH370 passengers’ wives, mothers, and sisters that have embraced Buddhism, "making ritual treks to local temples to pray for safe return" of their relatives.
Some of those devout family members have made even further pilgrimages, according to the Malaysian Insider that reported on several Chinese family members that recently visited Kuala Lumpur’s Thean Hou temple to pray. That article also recounted the trails of Li Hua, who grappled with a stroke and considered suicide after learning that his daughter was among the missing.
A Time Magazine story, meanwhile, delved into not only the grief, but also harassment that many family members have faced because of their tenacious push for answers in the unsolved incident. The Time story also described a MH370 WeChat group, which the relatives use to vote on how to respond to officials, adding that the group’s members have been monitored by the authorities, who aim "to discourage activism."
The relatives’ troubles are compounded by the recent announcement from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (whose government is heading up the current phase of the investigation, in the nearby Indian Ocean), when he said over the weekend: “I cannot promise that the search will go on at this intensity forever.”
While many of the relatives are no doubt dismayed by the prospect of never having an answer about their loved ones’ whereabouts, at least two of those family members have a different take on the tragedy. The sister of one of the missing passengers recently told The New York Times that: “My mother is waiting for her daughter … to return, though tears roll down her cheeks every time she raises a rice bowl. In a way, no news has been good news.”
Wang Zheng, the son of that missing relative, added: ""I cannot fall, because I don’t want my parents – upon their return – to see I am collapsing and languishing. I must take care of myself, take care of my family, and I must stand tall and pursue the truth as we are waiting for them to return."
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on March 9, 2015
Photo: The Rocket