Time for relatives to face reality

Time for relatives to face reality

Since Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 went missing on March 8, several hundred relatives of the Chinese passengers onboard the jetliner have been holed up in a Beijing hotel, where they have been living the same tortured day over and over again.

Their emotional roller coaster came to an end yesterday following MAS' announcement it would stop providing accommodation for the families. Senior Malaysian officials have also said that it is time the family members "faced the reality".

Having tracked these anguished relatives closely over the past seven weeks, I would say this move by MAS is long overdue. In fact, the families should have been made to leave even earlier.

This may seem callous, and I do not mean to belittle the incredibly difficult situation they are in.

But by staying cooped up for so long in Beijing's Metropark Lido Hotel, they were only trapping themselves in a time warp, and hindering a necessary process of grieving.

Madam Zeng Yunji, 54, one of the volunteer counsellors who spent time with the families in the first few weeks of their ordeal, told me that their seclusion as a group in the hotel set them apart from the victims of other natural disasters.

"To stay in the same place every day, in the same room, thinking about the same thing, it is not healthy for a normal person - not to mention for someone in their state of pain and vulnerability," she said.

"If they would go home, try to resume their normal routines, at least there would be the distraction of the real world. There would at least be the reminder that life is going on, and goes on."

But almost none of them went home, in part due to MAS' pledge in the early days of the incident that it would host the families in Beijing for as long as it took to find the wreckage.

This put nearly 500 of them in the same room every day, with nothing else to do but focus on their grief and stoke one another's outrage. Many of them lost a sense of proportion, as well as decorum.

For instance, some of the relatives would constantly describe Malaysia as a "small" and "incompetent" country. Others hurled personal insults and expletives at senior Malaysian officials.

At the official briefings by MAS officials and Malaysian diplomats, the family members frequently adopted a sarcastic and confrontational tone when asking questions - even when it was obvious that the officials had no answers beyond those they had been able to give.

Their demands also grew over time, despite their immediate material needs having been more than adequately taken care of, be it lodging, food, travel fare or spending money. For one thing, they began demanding more hotel rooms as more distant relatives requested to camp out in Beijing for more information.

I was not alone in feeling my sympathy for them ebb over the past few weeks. In casual conversations and online forums, I started hearing and seeing more people express concerns that the behaviour of these families was reflecting badly on China.

It would have been easier to let the families stay on in Beijing, in what had become their alternate universe, where their loved ones were still alive, the plane somewhere safe on a desolate spot and the world spun on without them.

But with the Flight MH370 trail cold, they need to take steps to return to reality, which many have lost sight of in recent weeks.

In early April, for instance, one relative approached me with an article published in a Russian tabloid on April 1 claiming that Flight MH370 passengers were held hostage in Afghanistan, and that Russian intelligence was negotiating for their release.

"Can you help me verify this?" she asked, plaintively. It broke my heart to respond that it was just an April Fool's Day joke.

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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