All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Shot Down by Marianne van Velzen

on July 3, 2019

Shot Down
Marianne van Velzen
Allen & Unwin
2019, 338p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The first full telling of what happened to MH17 and the stories of those who were killed on that tragic day.

On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines MH17 was shot out of the sky above Ukraine. Aboard were 298 people, 38 of whom were Australians. No one survived.

Subsequently it was shown that the airliner was almost certainly hit by a Buk surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists aided by the Russian military. The debris from the plane’s disintegration mid-air was spread over 50 square kilometres, but for weeks rescue teams and investigators were denied access. The Russians have refused to take any responsibility for the deaths.

This is the story of some of the people who boarded that fatal flight and the conflict below them that was doomed to destroy their lives and the happiness of the people they left behind. The fullest account yet published, it is also the story of a continuing clamour for justice. Unsettling, compelling and revealing, Shot Down will provoke both outrage that this criminal act could have happened and deep sadness for the lives lost.

So it’s almost the five year anniversary of the downing of MH17. We’re past the 5 year anniversary of MH370. I remember waking up on the morning of the 18th of July 2014 here in Australia and seeing the #prayforMH17 hashtags etc and for a moment, thinking that something had happened in regards to finding MH370, which disappeared on a routine flight between Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014. But no, this was another flight, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and it hadn’t disappeared. It had been shot down.

I’ve watched every episode of Air Crash Investigation (often called MayDay in overseas markets) and I really like watching how experts figure out precisely what happened in a plane crash and put the pieces together to create the picture of what went wrong. Some of the episodes are horrific because it can be the smallest of things that goes wrong – the wrong screws used in a maintenance check, the pivot tubes episode is a standout as well as something like the captains not being trained in the particular plane they’re flying. There are other types of episodes too, covering things like sabotage, deliberate destruction of the airplane and in cases like MH17, destruction by outside forces. Sometimes what the experts have to work with is so difficult – planes can completely be destroyed in catastrophic accidents and yet somehow they still manage to make sense of what has happened. Most of the time.

MH17 presented some unique challenges to investigators because of its location and the way in which the aircraft was brought down. It happened in the Ukraine, in an area that was in dispute, controlled by Russian separatist rebels and it was quickly proposed that they had most likely used a Russian supplied BUK surface to air missile to shoot down the plane, mistaking it for a Ukrainian war plane. It took a lot of diplomatic wrangling by countries like Australia, the Netherlands, Malaysia etc to even get the rebels to grant people access to begin removing the bodies for DNA identification so that people who had lost loved ones in the tragedy could begin making arrangements. That had to come first, particularly as it was summer in the northern hemisphere, with warm temperatures.

This book alternates in chapters between the stories of some of those who came to be on board MH17 with chapters that summarise the history of the area and the events that led up to the 17th of July 2014 as well as the aftermath of the crash and the attempts to run an investigation. I found this format to be quite helpful because it doesn’t hit you with one or the other all at once – the stories are heartbreaking and often show you just how your fate can be decided in the blink of an eye. The flight was overbooked, so the check in desk had to call for volunteers to be rebooked onto a later flight. Some people did volunteer for the financial compensation that the airline grants for the inconvenience. Some were chosen by the check in attendant to be bumped to another flight – others she chose to keep on MH17 because she felt like that would be the better option for them. There was a flight attendant on the plane whose wife had been supposed to work the fatal MH370 shift but had swapped with another attendant. So she survived that only to lose her husband in MH17. There were people undertaking their first plane trip overseas and understandably some were nervous after the disappearance of MH370. But what was the likelihood an airline could lose two planes? people rationalised. There was a couple from Perth who had been visiting the Netherlands with their three children. They sent their children back home with their grandfather in order for them to begin school (term 3 usually begins here around mid July) and stayed behind themselves in order to have a few more days alone enjoying a holiday together. Instead, they had to then deal with losing their children and also the woman’s father, who had been escorting them. There were almost 300 people on board, so there are almost 300 stories just like this one. The book doesn’t expound on all of them, just some (the Australians are highlighted here for obvious reasons and there are plenty of others too) but even with just the selection, it’s a lot to process. At times I found myself becoming quite affected by some of the stories.

The history is complicated and it was explained I think, in a clear manner which did give me a much better idea of what had been happening politically within the region in the time leading up to the loss of MH17. A lot of airlines had already voluntarily chosen to avoid the area, but the airspace was still open and it was believed that flying at 32-33000 feet was safe. Airlines like Malaysian Airlines were still flying the route because it was cheaper, and probably the airline had been struggling a little after the loss of MH370…..they weren’t likely to want to price hike their fares in order to fly a longer route from Western Europe to Asia. I think it’s just one of those things, where nobody thought it would probably really happen…..until it did. There were some rumours of a BUK and the separatists had shot down some Ukrainian planes but they were travelling much lower and didn’t look like a large passenger jet.

I read this at the same time as watching the television adaptation of Chernobyl and the thing that most struck me was when people tell Russia “here is a thing that most definitely happened” and Russia is basically like “um, no it didn’t”. I ended up getting frustrated with Russia’s response to a lot of things in this book and their vetoing of things using their UN Security Council veto power. I think it’s pretty clear they did supply the BUK which was used to shoot the plane down in an attempt to show power over the Ukraine after annexing Crimea and further hopes of establishing a Russian ‘nation’ in the Ukraine. It backfired horrifically on a world stage when they cocked it up and shot down a passenger plane bearing almost 300 international citizens just going about their business. A lot of Russia’s concern appears to be about ‘looking bad in front of our enemies’ or ‘things our enemies will do to make us look bad’ more like.  Russia posited a theory that the plane was being followed by a Ukrainian military jet that shot it down (firstly, why? lol) and they actually supplied satellite or radar image photos claiming to show this which were debunked in about five minutes as being doctored fakes. Even the MH logo on the plane wasn’t correct. Radar data from pretty much everywhere suggests there wasn’t a plane following it. There’s even a video of rebel soldiers finding the plane wreckage and being extraordinarily pleased with themselves that they’ve shot down another Ukrainian military plane……until they realise it isn’t a military plane and whoops. Both The Netherlands and Australia hold Russia officially responsible for the downing of MH17. After this book would’ve gone to print, 4 people (3 Russians and a Ukrainian) have been charged and international warrants issued for their arrests. They’ll be tried, even if they’re not present next year in The Hague.

This was a really good exploration of the factors that contributed to the plane being shot down, the history and political tension in the area but it didn’t forget the people on the plane either and their stories. And I think for me, those stories are really important because sometimes in watching documentaries and reading non-fiction books about this sort of thing, it becomes about the facts and this happened and people said that didn’t happen and the people get a bit lost or forgotten in the overall story. In this they are always front and centre, which is the way that it should be.


Book #97 of 2019



One response to “Review: Shot Down by Marianne van Velzen

  1. […] I read it?: Yes – my review. This was fascinating – it seemed inconceivable that a passenger plane could be shot down at […]

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