Missing MH370: 'He shouldn't have been on that flight. It's not fair.'

BEIJING - Two Saturdays ago, Madam Nan Kaifen, 40, waited at a Jining train station for her husband, a construction worker who was returning home from Singapore for the first time in over a year.

He was supposed to have arrived in Beijing early that morning, taken a nine-hour train ride to their hometown in Shandong province, and arrived in time for dinner with their two children, aged eight and 14.

Mr Liu Qiang, 40, never showed up. "I waited all night, and now I'm still waiting," Madam Nan, a small woman with a rough voice and bloodshot eyes, says.

Her husband was one of 153 Chinese passengers on Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370, still missing in what has become the biggest aviation mystery in modern history.

It was carrying 239 people, including an all-Malaysian crew, and lost contact with air traffic control 50 minutes after take-off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8.

The next day, Madam Nan hurried to Beijing with five family members - her husband's 70-year-old father and three siblings and her sister - after watching the news and confirming with her husband's company that he was on the flight.

She has been cooped up in the Beijing Metropark Lido hotel ever since, with more than 400 other relatives of passengers. All of them have been on an emotional roller coaster as dribs and drabs of information emerged each day about the jetliner that vanished.

Madam Nan started off hopeful, especially since there was a ringtone when she dialled her husband's mobile number repeatedly on Day 1 of her ordeal.

As days passed with no news, she began to expect the worst. On Day 5, she told The Sunday Times: "I don't know what I will do, and I am still hopeful. But it has been so long, and I must be prepared in my heart."

Then the Malaysian government revealed last Saturday - on Day 7 - that the plane had changed course and had remained flying until at least 8am the next day.

Like most of the other family members here, Madam Nan's hopes rose with the news, and they became convinced that Kuala Lumpur was negotiating with terrorists for the safe return of the passengers who were being held hostage somewhere.

"It was very hard not to know anything for so long, but as long as my husband comes home safe, that's OK," she said that day.

But the days continued to pass, and the Malaysian government made it clear it had not received any ransom demands.

Madam Nan began to despair again, and last Wednesday, Day 11, she joined some other families in starting a hunger strike. "It's to protest," she said then. "It's to show how upset we are and get them to return us our loved ones."

She abandoned the strike after a day, persuaded by family members not to hurt herself.

But she barely eats, and has only some porridge or soup at the hotel restaurant at meal times.

What she loved the most about her husband - his thriftiness and his dedication to providing for his family - she now hates, because those qualities put him in this predicament, she says.

Mr Liu usually came home like other workers once a year during the Chinese New Year. But this year, after four years in Singapore, he stayed back to work and earn extra in overtime pay.

Malaysia Airlines hunts for missing plane

For his overdue two-week break at home this month, Mr Liu chose to take the bus to KL and then an MAS flight to Beijing because it was cheaper than a direct flight from Singapore to Beijing. "He shouldn't have been on that flight," she says. "It's not fair."

Mr Liu's father says that their house in Shandong was renovated last year, thanks to his wages earned in Singapore. "He must come back to stay in this new house that he built," he said.

Asked on Day 12 how she passes her days, Madam Nan says: "Just waiting for news."

Asked if she still believes the passengers are alive, she says only: "I have hope."

Over the past two weeks, she has become less and less communicative, saying little to family members around her during mealtimes.

She has also not spoken much to her two children at home, not trusting herself to remain calm on the phone.

"All I have said to them is that their father is still in Malaysia and we are waiting for him to come home."

rchang@sph.com.sg

‘She is my sister, I need to wait for her and take her home’

PUTRAJAYA - Some relatives of the plane passengers have left for home, but others are still waiting.

Mr Selamat Umar has been awaiting news of his missing son at The Everly Hotel in Putrajaya for the past two weeks. He says the vigil will continue until his son is found.

The 60-year-old is among nine relatives of Malaysian passengers of Flight MH370 who are still staying put. Others have gone home.

Over at the Hotel Equatorial Bangi Putrajaya, 26 Chinese nationals are still waiting for any information about their missing family members.

"No one knows where the plane is. Has it been hijacked or has it crashed?" asks Mr Selamat, who runs a small oil palm plantation in Pahang. His son, Mr Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat, 29, an aviation engineer, was heading to Beijing to repair a plane.

"One by one, I watched the others leave the hotel, with their bags in tow. I don't think they will return until the plane is found. If I go home, I will not be able to get the latest news."

With the missing plane gaining global attention, the relatives of the passengers have been besieged by the dozens of journalists covering the news. Some have chosen to stay mostly in their rooms to avoid the reporters and photographers.

"It's like being in jail," says one relative who wants to be known only as Mr Chng. "There's nothing I can do but wait. There is a huge shopping mall next to the hotel, but do you think I have the mood to go shopping? Or use the hotel's facilities?"

Mr Chng, who keeps mostly to himself, is one of the loneliest people in the hotel. He is often seen sitting alone in a quiet corner in the lobby in the early hours of the morning when the place is quiet.

He says he has not slept much since his sister Chng Meiling went missing. Ms Chng, 33, works as a senior process engineer in the United States and was heading there via Beijing.

As the eldest of five children, Mr Chng feels responsible for his sister. "She is my sister, I need to wait for her and take her home. No matter how long I have to wait, I will not leave the hotel, even if I have to pay for the stay myself.

With each passing day, hope fades a little. But with no trace of the aircraft or its passengers, there is a tiny straw to cling to, that some, or most, may still be alive.

Mr Selamat tells The Sunday Times he keeps his sanity by maintaining a set routine. Every day, he wakes up at 7am to watch the news on TV, before ploughing through the newspapers for more news. Then he takes a walk around the hotel.

Unlike Mr Chng, he speaks freely to the media, sometimes even holding his own mini press conference to voice his frustrations. He is always around when politicians or other VIPs drop in on the relatives at The Everly Hotel.

Among the 150 trained counsellors who have been there to support the family members is Mr Abdul Jalil Hassan, 43, who says: "The first 72 hours of a newsbreak are the most critical as this is when the relatives need plenty of support to absorb the news. They would experience all kinds of emotions, from shock to feeling depressed, stressed and sad.

"Once they calm down, even though there's plenty of uncertainty, they would realise that there are only two possible scenarios - Flight MH370 will return or they will lose their loved ones.

"Of course, many are hoping against hope for a miracle."

joycel@sph.com.sg

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Malaysia Airlines hunts for missing plane