Yarick lost his father, sister, and stepmother in the MH17 disaster: 'After three years, I collapsed'

© Niels de Vries

7 YEARS LATER The story of survivor Yarick van de Mortel (25 years old) is forever linked to one of the most poignant images of the MH17 crash. That stuffed animal held by the Ukrainian soldier in front of the cameras? It was the beloved toy of Yarick's deceased sister Milia.

The photo of the Ukrainian soldier in a camouflage cap holding the stuffed animal of a child in a Ukrainian field filled with debris: who can forget it? It summed up the plane crash in one glance. The chaos, the war, the anarchy, and the 298 innocent victims, many of them children. One of those children was Milia. The black and white stuffed animal was hers. Milia was 11 years old when, seven years ago, she died during the Malaysia Airlines flight along with Yarick's father Jeroen (42) and Yarick's stepmother Winneke (45) in Eastern Ukraine.

Yarick remembers the commotion around the photo like it was yesterday. "My grandmother immediately recognized the stuffed animal in the photo in one of the newspapers. She had given it to Milia and knew that Milia insisted on taking it on vacation. The stuffed animal just didn't fit in the suitcase, so it went in the carry-on." Yes, Yarick still remembers everything about the shock of that one devastating image, but he has forgotten many other things. "It's as if I wasn't completely there during that initial period. There was so much to arrange, to decide, news day in and day out. I was 18 and thought of myself as an adult, but now I know: I was still just a boy."

The stuffed animal of Milia © Hollandse Hoogte / ANP

National Commemoration

The fact that the disaster is still nationally commemorated seven years after the fact deeply touches Yarick van de Mortel from Leeuwarden, now 25 years old, living together, and a father to a 5-year-old son. "Before the pandemic, I used to go to the national commemoration myself. Not so much to meet other next of kin because that's not really my thing. I prefer to process things on my own. But I always thought it was important to show respect for my family and all the other victims," he said. On July 17, he also visits the family grave in Zwanenburg, the North Holland town where his father settled after his divorce from Yarick's mother. "We place a red rose on the grave for dad, a white one for Winneke, and a pink one for Milia."

Yarick always had a "very good bond" with his father, even after the divorce. "Of course, I was with my father less because I lived with my mother in Leeuwarden. But we talked often. My father also wanted me to go with him to Malaysia that summer. It was a trip to celebrate his 12.5-year anniversary. But I preferred to go on vacation with friends, I loved going out, partying; I was a bit of a wild one at the time. When we spoke the Monday before the flight, we did agree to go on a trip together soon."

Father figure

To this day, Yarick is overwhelmed by the feeling: just call Dad. "I know it's not possible, but the feeling remains strong, and I can't imagine it ever going away. I miss a father figure, someone to lean on, a kind of security." It's precisely at the high points that the absence is most keenly felt. "You want your father to share in the good things, don't you? Whether it's something significant, like the birth of my son on February 28, 2016, or something less important, like the fact that I can now bench press 105 kilograms at the gym."

Yarick van de Mortel with his father. © Private photo.

It's not for nothing that Yarick is only now sharing his story in the newspaper. In the first few years, he couldn't do it. "I didn't want conversations, didn't want to make a big deal out of it, rejected psychological help. I have a strong aversion to pity, even now; I just don't want to feel it. I thought, 'Screw all of this, I'll just keep going, autopilot.' I'm a busy person, extroverted, so I kept going. I had a son, tried studies in international business, went out a lot, and it seemed to be going quite well."

It wasn't until about three years after the tragedy that he had to admit, "This isn't working." Yarick says, "It was like a sudden hit, and I was just tired, so tired, I couldn't go on. That's when I finally accepted help. Initially, I went to a therapist who, after three sessions, still confused the name of my deceased sister with the names of my other sisters. I was done with that quickly. But with my second therapist, things clicked. She taught me that grief would continue to follow me, and I had to allow it in. She said, 'You're the only one who can make something of your life, and you'll have to work your butt off for it.'"

Yarick's life is now calmer and actually resembles that of his father. Yarick says, "Yeah, it's a strange thing, but I'm now very much into sports, and my father was always into sports too. I, like my father, got divorced a few years after my child was born, and now I'm happily with a new woman. Also, like him, I ended up in the construction field. I work as a concrete carpenter. The alarm goes off at 5:00 in the morning, long and hard work, it's good for me."

Yarick cannot escape news about the crash. For example, the much-discussed trial of the four suspects in the crash is set to continue after the summer. He wishes it could be over and done with. Yarick says, "I don't want to step on anyone's toes because I understand that others want to uncover every detail. And, yes, I want those four behind bars, for the rest of their lives. But I have the feeling it will never be over, that everything will keep dragging on, and that the high-ranking people will probably never be caught."

© Niels de Vries

Yarick has decided not to exercise his right to give a victim impact statement in court. He says, "I'm afraid that something like that would make me very emotional, and I don't want that. I know myself well enough to know that it would drain so much energy, and it has already taken so much from me. I want to reserve my energy for my son, my family, and my job. Yes, if you ask me what I want most, it's to have a nórmal life."

Yarick has a few tangible mementos from his family in the debris of MH17. Occasionally, he takes out these items collected in a box in the living room. There's his father Jeroen's sunglasses, a smartphone charger with Milia's name tag. The black-and-white stuffed monkey from the Ukrainian field that shook the entire world that day isn't among them. It went with Milia in her casket. "That's where it belonged. With Milia."

Dozens of relatives address the court: 'They give their loved ones a voice'

The MH17 trial will resume on September 6. For three weeks, the floor will be given to the relatives of the 298 victims. At least 86 family members from eight countries will share their stories in court about the impact of the plane crash on their lives.

"It has never happened before that so many victims will speak during a criminal trial," says Sander de Lang (SAP Advocaten) on behalf of the eight lawyers of the MH17 Legal Assistance Team, which represents almost all 298 victims. "It will be intense and emotional to hear all these stories."

De Lang is a member of a special committee, consisting of lawyers representing the bereaved and
representatives of the Public Prosecution Service and the court, which has prepared a script for the right to speak. "Some of the bereaved have been looking forward to this moment for a long time," says De Lang. "I had a client who already recited the text to me last year that she wants to speak. They give their loved ones and their emotions a voice. For processing the disaster, this is very important."

The 86 bereaved family members will be divided over ten trial days. They gather in a separate room at the court, where experts are available to provide psychological support. They are individually picked up by a lawyer, escorted to the courtroom, and brought back. Each speaker is allowed to speak for fifteen minutes. Some bereaved will address the court via a professional live video connection from abroad. This is done at a special location, such as an embassy or police station. "Some bereaved want to show photos of their loved ones. Others have recorded a video message in advance."

The absence of the four defendants from the trial, according to De Lang, does not diminish the power of the message from the bereaved. "We also advise them to address the judges and explain the impact of the disaster on their lives. After all, it is the court that has to make a judgment."

In addition to the live speakers, hundreds of written victim impact statements will be added to the case file. So far, 264 survivors have indicated that they will submit a statement. These will also be submitted to the court as a collection starting from September.

(Tonny van der Mee)
Source: AD NL
Yarick with his sister © prive
With the whole family © private