Saturday, July 17, is the anniversary of the 2014 atrocity that sent shockwaves around the globe. A Malaysia Airlines flight, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was brought down by a surface-to-air-missile over eastern Ukraine where rebels were fighting government forces. A total of 298 people were killed, including 80 children and 38 Australians.
Among them were beloved Brisbane retirees Howard, 63, and Susan Horder, 62, who were returning from their trip of a lifetime in Europe. They had spent a month in Ireland, visited one of their sons, David, in London and enjoyed an Andre Rieu concert in the Netherlands.
Their other sons, Matthew and Adam, are from the Sunshine Coast and Melbourne, where David also has relocated to since the incident. Matthew, 46, is vice-president and a former Nippers chairman at Mooloolaba Surf Life Saving Club, which protects the beach his parents adored. The spot was so special to them, they wanted their ashes placed there.
After seven years, the family is now hoping for justice and some finality as a trial gathers momentum in the Netherlands. Three Russians and a Ukrainian are accused of downing MH17 and murdering all those on board. The most senior, Igor Girkin, was commanding Russian-backed separatists in the area.
Early evidence heard in The Hague has focused on the surface-to-air Buk missile involved, where it originated and who provided it to the separatists.
However, in September, Matthew and his brothers will have the chance to address the court proceedings – being livestreamed – and deliver a victim impact statement, most likely via video conferencing.
“We will be standing up for Mum and Dad as they would have wanted us to … we will be their voice,’’ Mr Horder says.
“Of course, we hope someone is held to account and to get some finality at the end of this trial, but our main objective is to tell the world what we have lost.’’
With the anniversary always a difficult time, Mr Horder decided to give a talk at endED Espresso Bar at Buddina, which raises funds for the eating disorders support network of the same name. Charity work, volunteering and exercise have helped him cope with depression, anxiety and PTSD in the wake of the tragedy.
The talk attracted a group of friends from surf lifesaving, Matthew’s work in the sport and recreation industry and others who had joined him on charity walks that help organisations, including Cancer Council Queensland and Wesley Mission.
He told the group that his parents had been at the back end of a dream trip to Europe where they were having the time of their lives. His father had been “posting every day’’ the photos of their many enjoyable moments. But on July 17, the family’s world was changed forever.
“Sudden loss is one thing, but the way it happened was something I struggled to come to terms with, and it has had a big impact on the way I live my life. No-one was prepared for this kind of event – it shocked the world,” Mr Horder says.
As the unthinkable event happened overnight Australian time, Mr Horder did not find out until early on July 18, when he awoke and saw multiple missed calls from his brothers. “I called my brother in Melbourne and he was having trouble speaking. He eventually spat out that our parents’ plane had come down. I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
“Then I turned on the TV and there it was … pictures of a burnt-out wreckage…The grief reaction was instant.’’
Mr Horder says his father had been a remarkably organised person and left a “dossier’’ to be opened if anything happened while they were away.
He said it was like his father was talking to him through the package, telling him everything from how to get into their house, disable alarm systems and where vital documents were kept.
Mr Horder says the media scrutiny was something his family was unprepared for. It was sudden, intense and overwhelming.
“The calls started coming quickly. Media had bought a copy of the manifest from someone in Malaysia and had more information than DFAT. They didn’t give a sh*t about Mum and Dad and just wanted us to say something negative about Russia or (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.’’
Mr Horder says the most difficult tasks for him were to tell his two children about their grandparents and also his mother’s best friend, who was devastated.
The Federal Government has provided excellent support to the family, he says. A few days after the plane came down, he was in the gym trying to distract himself from the turmoil when the phone rang.
“A man spoke and said: ‘It’s Tony Abbott here. I’m calling to see how you’re going’. I spoke with the (then) prime minister for 20 to 30 minutes and told him about Mum and Dad, that they were hard-working Australians who had never asked for anything, but now needed their country’s help. At that stage, we did not know where they were… their bodies… and whether we would ever be able to bring them home.’’
Mr Horder says the then PM and then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, had been at the forefront of getting a resolution through the United Nations that allowed the recovery operation in what was a war zone. Up to 500 Australians worked on the case, including servicemen and women, scientists and police.
“This was pretty much the world’s biggest crime scene as people, belongings and fragments of aircraft had fallen over a 50-square-kilometre area in fields with giant sunflowers.’’
On August 15 that year, Mr Horder was contacted by the AFP, who said they had identified his mother and wanted to know whether to bring her home.
“I got pretty upset and said: ‘What about Dad?’ I wanted them to come home together. Five days later, they identified Dad, which was a huge relief.’’
Howard and Susan Horder were flown home and their family was able to give them a fitting farewell. In keeping with their wishes, their ashes were placed off the rocks at the northern end of Mooloolaba, where the caravan park used to be.
“It was their favourite place and will always be special to all of us.”