When flight MH17 went down in Ukraine, one sister died and another's life was altered forever

The World
Babs Baay and her sister Joyce (R), who lost her life aboard Malaysia Flight 17

When the Malaysian airliner, flight MH17, was shot down over eastern Ukraine nearly a year ago, the BBC's Natalia Antelava was soon reporting from the scene. A chance encounter gave her a personal connection with one of the dead passengers, and — as she describes here — prompted her to find the woman's sister.

The midwife said she'd be back by dinner time. By 3 p.m. it was clear that the baby was not going to wait that long. As her contractions, and pain, grew stronger, Babs Baay crawled into the only bedroom of her tiny flat in the Dutch town of Breda. She lay on the wooden floor and, for a moment thought of dialling her cousin, who had volunteered to take her to the birthing centre. Then she decided not to.

"I don't know why," she tells me two months later, as we sit down on a white sofa in her sunlit living room. "I guess because the only person I really wanted there was the one person who could not be there. I didn't want to replace her."

Instead, Babs says, she propped her back against the side of her bed and fixed her eyes firmly on the wall above her. Hanging from it are dozens of photographs of that one person: her sister Joyce. 


Joyce died in the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.


Courtesy of Babs Baay

"She always gave me comfort and kept me calm," Babs says. "Joyce was everything — my friend, my partner, my home. We discussed everything together, whether it was work, relationships, emotions or illness."

After two hours of puffing, pushing and breathing Babs focused on remembering all she had ever read or watched about delivering babies. Then she sat up, leaned over and reached for the baby's head, gently twisting her shoulder and, with a final push, delivered her daughter.

When the midwife finally turned up at the promised hour, she was astonished to find the first solo delivery of her long career.

"It was a split second, and instinct too kicked in so I twisted and pulled her out and there she was, looking at me with her big blue eyes: 'Hello!' And I was so proud, I thought, 'You listened so well to mummy, you are such a brave baby,'" Babs says, little Yoeki snoozing at her chest.

Why did Babs never call for help? She doesn't know. But the experience helped her to connect with Yoeki, she says, and somehow make her sister, Joyce, part of it too.

Joyce was always supposed to be Babs's delivery partner. Soon after Babs had decided to go through the process of artificial insemination she had told her sister that she'd want her by her side in the labor room. "She travelled a lot, so I said to her keep that in mind, to free up some time," Babs remembers.

Joyce had just been selected to guide a group of Dutch tourists through Malaysia — it was a potential career change that could lead to a lot more travel, and she was excited. She was also keen to get to Malaysia a few days before her group arrived, and so on 17 July she boarded Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. She planned to be back in a month.

The Boeing 777 carrying Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down near the Russian-Ukrainian border, in the area controlled by Moscow-backed rebels.

On July 19, I arrived at the scene, near the village of Hrabove, with a BBC television crew. The sun was just setting over spectacular fields of sunflowers. Scattered through these fields, over an area of more than 10 square kilometers were the bodies of the 298 passengers and crew.

Some of what we saw was overwhelmingly gruesome, some painfully poignant. At one point as I wandered through the field, I stepped on a glass jar of Estee Lauder face cream. Was the owner a holidaymaker? A businesswoman, maybe? Or one of many scientists heading to a big HIV conference? Some of the world's leading AIDS researchers were on that plane. Or maybe she was the mother of one of the 80 children on the flight?

I remember a tall man sobbing by the roadside. He must have been a journalist — no family members or international rescue workers could get to the area in those early days because of the fighting. The man was on his phone speaking English to someone back home. He was describing duty-free whisky bottles we had all seen amid the debris. He was crying because he, like the rest of us, could not understand how glass bottles of booze could survive a fall that killed so many people.

The rebels were in a state of shock and panic. Whoever shot down MH17, it was clearly unplanned. The rebels said they would guarantee safety for an international rescue mission only if Kiev agreed to a truce. Instead, they launched their own hasty recovery operation, bringing in hundreds of local coal miners to comb through the fields.

It was one of these miners, a young slim man with a face smeared in coal dust, who walked up to me as we were filming. "Documents," he said handing me an ID and a wallet. "What do I do with them? Please pass them on," he said, walking away before I even had a chance to reply.

We handed the documents to the rebels in charge — there was no-one else to give them to. But the name on the ID stuck in my mind: Joyce.

Long after I left Ukraine, I kept wondering who Joyce was and whether the documents ever reached her family. When Malaysian Airlines released a list of the names of the passengers on flight MH17 I looked for hers and there it was, near the top — the only Joyce on the flight. In the months that followed, I tracked down her sister, Babs, in the Netherlands. She was pregnant at the time and we tentatively agreed to meet after the birth of the baby. The plan was that after meeting her, I'd travel to eastern Ukraine to track down the miner who found Joyce's documents. These were two people — Babs and the miner — whose worlds collided when the plane crashed, whose lives changed forever. I wanted to know how.

"Holland's 9/11" was how one official described to me the shooting down of MH17. There were citizens of 10 countries on that flight - Malaysians, Indonesians, Australians, British... But the biggest group were the Dutch. The figure of 193 Dutch deaths exceeds the number of people murdered in the Netherlands in a normal year.

The Dutch government says the investigation into MH17 is its top priority, but many are unhappy with the way it has dragged on. The investigators won't report their conclusions until October. A preliminary report in September last year said the plane broke up after being penetrated by "high-velocity objects" — which appeared to lend support to the widespread suspicion that the airliner was shot down by a powerful Buk anti-aircraft missile.

Shortly before the attack, the rebels had boasted about having access to a Russian-made Buk but subsequently both they and their allies in Moscow insisted that the plane was shot down in an air-to-air attack by a Ukrainian fighter plane. More recently, the rebels agreed that it was indeed a Buk missile, but insisted that it was fired from the Ukrainian side. The official investigation should clarify this — and many in the Netherlands are already calling for an international tribunal.

Babs doesn't know who killed her sister and accepts that she might never find out. But it has changed the way she feels about the world, she tells me. She now carefully follows news of the conflict in Ukraine, even though a year ago she knew almost nothing about it. She can no longer bear the sight of Vladimir Putin, she says, and switches channels every time she sees his face on television. She often logs on to a special online forum for relatives of the victims. Recently someone posted photographs taken by a passenger inside the plane before the disaster — these were stored in a telephone that was recovered from the wreckage and returned to relatives.

"Imagine," Babs says as she shows me pictures of smiling passengers settling into their seats, "that door closed and that was it. This plane was their coffin."

We talk for hours, mostly about Joyce: her hopes and her dreams, her diverse group of friends, a hilarious 40th birthday party that she had organised in an Amsterdam theatre a year before her death.

Babs tells me about the phone call informing her about the crash; about checking into a hotel in Amsterdam together with the other families. The fact that they were all grieving together provided no comfort, she says.

It was there, while waiting for news from Ukraine, that Babs did a pregnancy test. "It was a very difficult moment because I knew that if it was a negative test, I would go to hell. My world would completely fall apart." She told no-one that she was pregnant.

The families waited in the hotel for seven days until finally, after tense negotiation between the warring sides, the Dutch were able to send military planes to collect the first 80 bodies.

I remember watching the ceremony in Hrabove amid the charred fields, the debris and men in sloppy camouflage waving guns and barking orders. A world away, at Eindhoven military airport, dozens of black hearses were parked in a perfect line and the nation held its breath as the planes began to land. The contrast between the chaos of war-torn Ukraine and the dignified, choreographed reception on Dutch soil was overwhelming. What I couldn't see on my screen were the relatives, their grief hidden away from the cameras.

Babs says all she could hear was the flapping of flags at half-mast. She will never know which coffin carried her sister back. The identification process took weeks. But she remembers the day a man brought Joyce's belongings back — each item wrapped in white paper, including the documents the miner gave me.

I tell Babs that I plan to go to eastern Ukraine and try to find the miner. She asks me to thank him. "It's important to me that they respected her dying," she says.

But, she tells me, there was one thing missing from Joyce's belongings — a silver bracelet her sister always wore. Babs asks me to try to track it down.

These days a trip to eastern Ukraine, where war continues, is a complex undertaking. It involves a road journey across bombed-out countryside through many checkpoints — first on the Ukrainian, then on the Russian-backed side. Both require special permissions. I have all the documents, as I've been back to Ukraine several times over the past year, but just as I prepare to go back to look for the miner — and now the bracelet — I get bad news. The authorities in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic have revoked my permit — and they say this is non-negotiable.

The reason for banning me from Donetsk appears to be a television piece that I did on my last trip to Ukraine, examining the story of a 10-year-old girl allegedly killed during Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk. I heard the report on Russian television and decided to fact-check it. What I found was that not only was there no shelling that day, but the girl herself had never existed. Russian journalists admitted to me on camera that they had fabricated the report because they "had to do it."

My report deeply upset the authorities in Donetsk. The story of the girl is simply one of many examples of the propaganda war between Russia and Ukraine. Flight MH17 is at the heart of this war. Ukrainian journalists have stuck to the version, supported by the West, that rebels shot down the plane with a Buk missile. Russian television in the meantime has presented several alternative theories, including one repeated to me by rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin. "Did you know that the plane was pre-loaded with dead bodies at Schiphol airport?" he asked me on my trip to Donetsk in April 2015. "It was all part of a plan to make us look bad."

Having failed to convince the Donetsk authorities that this time I was coming simply to look for a miner and a bracelet, I started investigating whether there was any way of doing this remotely. I called everyone I could think of in Donetsk, including a journalist, Katya Malofeyeva. She told me she was about to travel to the three villages at the crash site and volunteered to show people pictures of the bracelet and the miner.

Katya returned from her trip with audio recordings of several local people. Their trauma is clearly audible on tape.

"I was barbecuing, and there it was — falling down. A big thing. A big piece. And from that piece of plane people were falling. They were flying as if they were birds with their arms spread out," said Alexander in the village of Rassypnoe.

Others told Katya they were tired of talking to journalists. Some cried. "As if the war wasn't enough to deal with," one woman said. Another, called Marina, said that her only request was a memorial for the victims. "We must preserve their memory," she said.

When Katya showed Marina a photo of Joyce with her bracelet, she sounded excited. Her neighbor, Galya, had found a bracelet in her garden, she said. Last year a woman's body fell into Galya's courgette patch, and for a year she avoided the garden. But this spring she finally ventured in, and while working on the land she found a bracelet.

Marina walked Katya over to her neighbour's house, where Galya examined the photo of Joyce wearing her chunky silver band and declared it to be a different bracelet."The one I found is white with a golden rim and little jewels. Maybe you can find the family so I can return it?" she said.

Sensing Katya's disappointment, both Galya and Marina reassured her that there is a good chance the bracelet will be found. "People are still finding things, we give everything back," Marina said.

Residents of villages around the crash site are still sensitive about allegations of looting that came after the crash. I personally saw things disappear in the chaos of those first days. Each time we arrived at the site the pile of belongings by the roadside got smaller and smaller. Those whisky bottles, for example, vanished by the third day. By the fifth day, the "I love Amsterdam" T-shirt that had been laid out on the grass was gone too. But there were also plenty of people, like that coal miner, who took care of the personal belongings they found.

Katya showed the coal miner's photo to everybody she met, and it turned out that he wasn't local but part of a group brought in from another area. We will keep trying to track him down, but over the last year thousands of people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine, and thousands more have fled. Katya and others say they'll keep trying to find the bracelet too.

Babs will be waiting. For the bracelet, and, with the rest of the nation, for answers.

This story was cross-posted by our partners at the BBC Magazine. You can download Natalia's documentary “MH17 - A Sister's Story” from the BBC World Service here

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