In Days After Jet's Downing, A Dark Cloud Hangs Over Holland

Nearly 200 Dutch citizens died in the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine. To learn about the country's response to the tragedy, Audie Cornish speaks with Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nearly 200 of the flight's 17 victims were Dutch nationals. Over the weekend, with flags at half mast, the small nation began to come to grips with the loss. We're going to turn now to Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times. He's been reporting from the Netherlands since the first moments of the crash. Thomas Erdbrink, welcome to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thank you, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So give us a sense of the public reaction to the response by Dutch leaders.

ERDBRINK: Well, people have been angry and they have been angry because both the prime minister and the Dutch King Willem-Alexander took a very long time to reach out to the relatives of the victims. And they also took a very long time to actually establish some success in bringing the bodies of the victims back to the Netherlands. So they have been upset but today, this afternoon, both the prime minister and the king met up with around 1000 relatives, friends of those who perished on flight MH17. And this has sort of taken the edge off that tension.

CORNISH: What, if anything, has been heard from the relatives of the victims?

ERDBRINK: Now the relatives of the victims have slowly started to talk to the media. I am originally from the Netherlands as my accent is, of course, also a dead giveaway. I have spoken with many of the relatives of the victims. Yesterday, I met up with a group of friends who had lost their good friend Lourens, who together with his girlfriend was on vacation to Indonesia. Lourens was a guy, his friends told me, who was a good writer. He was a very inspirational teacher at the high school and as I said there - you could really feel the pain they were feeling. I mean, they were sad. They were trying to laugh through their tears. But yeah, a dark cloud is hanging over this nation and people really don't know what to do with their feelings. This is a very big event for them. You can almost compare it to 9/11. And people are really confused.

CORNISH: As we heard from our correspondent in Donetsk, the train carrying the remains of dozens of victims through rebel controlled areas is on the move and I understand that that train has also become a symbol and a target of anger for people in the Netherlands.

ERDBRINK: Absolutely. I mean, the Netherlands is a country where the memories of the second World War are still very much alive, and of course bodies being moved around in trains by rebels who seemingly don't care for any of the remains, they don't go down very well here in Holland or anywhere else in the world for that matter. So people have been focused on this train, and the fact that the train is moving now is really a sigh of relief because it means that they will be reunited at least with the bodies of those they loved so much.

CORNISH: Thomas Erdbrink, you mentioned that you are Dutch, that you're from the Netherlands. Can you talk about what kind of impact, how deeply this has affected people?

ERDBRINK: Well, the Netherlands is a country that always likes to take the moral high ground on issues like euthanasia and gay rights and other issues that might seem very liberal in the United States, but it's definitely not a country that is involved in the hard world of geopolitics and conflict. It is very hard for them to accept the fact that this has happened. The first days people were treating it as if it was a plane disaster. But now, slowly after the whole episode with the bodies on the train and the horrible images of those rebels dragging those bodies through the fields of Eastern Ukraine, people are realizing that Holland has been involved in what everybody else would call an act of war and people also realize that this will not be over in the next week, in the next month or even in the next year. This is a very important turning point in the history of the Netherlands and they're going to have to find a way to deal with it.

CORNISH: Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ERDBRINK: Thank you for having me.

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