Photo Family counsellors (Harro Meijnen)
"To be allowed to do this, is a privilege”
Theo Vermeulen and Sylvia van Braak were driving their car when they heard the news on the radio at the end of the afternoon on Thursday 17 July 2014, saying that a plane that had left Schiphol Airport on its way to Kuala Lumpur, had crashed. "We actually immediately thought that we, as national coordinators of the family counsellors, would receive a message that an appeal was going to be made to us. So we went straight to work. "
Before Friday morning they had forty couples of family counsellors ready, and by Sunday morning, that number had grown to 120 family counsellors and coordinators. "It was in the middle of the summer and many police officers were on holiday, but there were so many who called from their holiday address ...", Theo says. "Some even rescheduled or cancelled their holidays," adds Sylvia.
The first thing the family counsellors had to do was to visit the relatives, to fill in forms necessary for the purpose of identification and to collect private items with which victims could later be identified. Not only in the Netherlands: this also happened in the countries from which the other victims originated. In total there were 298 victims from ten countries."Things like toothbrushes, but also photos from the departure hall at Schiphol. But if the colleagues were with the next of kin, they would of course hear the stories and the sadness," according to Theo.
"In other cases when a crime has been committed, then the family counsellors come with information from the investigation team. Now there were so many images and a lot of misinformation via the media", Sylvia says. Theo: "On screen people were carrying personal, recognisable items around. That was so difficult for the relatives, and it still is today. For all these issues, the family counsellors were also the first point of contact."
If desired, the family counsellors went along with the relatives to Eindhoven Airport when the bodies returned, they were there when personal belongings were returned to the relatives and, at the request of the court in The Hague, they helped collect the necessary signatures for the applications for the death certificates. But they were also the channel for verified information from, among others, the Joint Investigation Team. "The information that we provided had been duly checked," according to Theo.
Meanwhile, the family counsellors are back to their normal daily work in the various police units. That is also necessary, Theo and Sylvia say, because if the contact remains, the relatives are always reminded of the terrible moments of the crash when they see the police officers involved.
Now, only Theo Vermeulen and Sylvia van Braak are the contacts for the relatives. But only for the people who have indicated that they are interested, not everybody wants to keep contact.
And one of the two is always available for the police team management or the Public Prosecution Service. Even on a short holiday, the secured laptop always comes along in case messages have to be sent quickly. Via email, people everywhere in the world, if at all possible, are actively informed when information is provided by the JIT or another government agency.
Of course the email address is also meant for questions that the next of kin may have. Theo and Sylvia then see to it that these questions are answered. For more than two years now, Sylvia and Theo have maintained these contacts, also with relatives of the victims from the other nine countries.
Theo and Sylvia still think it is "a privilege to be allowed to do this", they say and the Amsterdam police unit makes sure that they get the time to do what they have to.
Theo and Sylvia are also involved in the possible next phase of the investigation, if it comes to a trial. "We have looked around at the intended court building", Sylvia says, referring to the Justice Complex Schiphol. This complex has since been designated as the location for if and when it comes to criminal prosecution.
Images from Schiphol Airport
The most special moment for Sylvia and Theo was when they looked at the images from Schiphol with the relatives. It took a long time before the images were available, and the relatives could see the last images of their loved ones. Theo: "We have heard the stories, seen the happy holidaymakers and experienced the emotional moments of the families. Recognitions, memories. "Sylvia: "Emotional and dignified. Practically all of the victims could be seen in the images."
In Australia (38 passengers on board flight MH17) there is a network of family liaison officers comparable to the one in the Netherlands. David Nelson, Detective Superintendent of the Australian Federal Police (AFP): “For the next of kin a special website was set up by the Australian Federal Police where families can find information from the JIT or from other authorities. In the Netherlands there is a similar portal.”
“We are committed to the investigation. In our local offices in the Netherlands and the Ukraine we still have personnel working on the investigation. In addition, the Australian federal government has allocated in excess of 50 million dollars (over 31 million euros) in the budget over the next four years. The money is to support Australia’s ongoing involvement in the prosecution phase and importantly, to provide funding for relatives of Australian victims to take part in any future court proceedings in the Netherlands”, according to Nelson.