Agonizing wait drags on for relatives of missing on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

By Christopher Bodeen
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIJING — Like other relatives of passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Wang Zheng’s frustration and anger over a lack of any certain information about the fate of his loved ones continues to grow two weeks after the plane went missing.

“Biggest of all is the emotional turmoil I’ve been going through. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I’ve been dreaming of my parents every day,” said the 30-year-old IT engineer from Beijing, whose father and mother, Wang Linshi and Xiong Yunming, were both aboard the flight as part of a group of Chinese artists touring Malaysia.

A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 waits for news at the Lido Hotel on March 22, Beijing China. The search to identify whether two large objects spotted via satellite in the Indian Ocean are related to missing flight MH370 continues today, for the third day, with no results. The airliner went missing two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 waits for news at the Lido Hotel on March 22, Beijing China. The search to identify whether two large objects spotted via satellite in the Indian Ocean are related to missing flight MH370 continues today, for the third day, with no results. The airliner went missing two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The plane’s disappearance on its way from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 has hit China particularly hard, with 153 of the 239 people on board citizens of the People’s Republic. It was the first major incident to hit Chinese travellers since they began visiting abroad in major numbers about a decade ago.

China’s government responded with almost unprecedented forcefulness, deploying nearly a dozen ships and several aircraft to the search effort and assigning government officials to meet with relatives and Malaysian officials.

Relatives such as Wang have put their personal and professional lives on hold waiting for any word of the fate of their loved ones.

At a sprawling hotel complex in Beijing, the relatives rise each morning and eat breakfast — at least those who can muster the appetite — before attending a briefing on the missing plane. Then follows another long day of watching the news and waiting, before an evening briefing that inevitably offers little more information.

Amid the many theories and scant and often dubious, contradictory and disavowed findings, the relatives’ patience has at times worn thin.

Following a brief meeting Saturday with Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian government officials, impatience turned to anger as relatives erupted in shouts of “We want to know what the reality is,” and “Give us back our loved ones.”

“The family members are extremely indignant,” read a statement issued by relatives following the meeting. “We believe we have been strung along, kept in the dark and lied to by the Malaysian government.”

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called on “all parties to be understanding during this extraordinary and difficult time,” and said officials would “do everything in our power” to keep the relatives informed.

“I’m psychologically prepared for the worst and I know the chances of them coming back alive are extremely small,” said Nan Jinyan, sister-in-law of missing passenger Yan Ling, a 29-year-old engineer who had worked for the last four years at a company that designs equipment for heart patients.

Like many of the relatives, Nan said that her helpless feelings were worsened by being almost entirely dependent on the media for news, and that she was deeply unhappy with what she called the vague and often contradictory information coming from Malaysia Airlines.

Malaysia's Minister of Defence and acting Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein speaks at a press conference on March 22, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The press conference was interrupted with breaking news that Chinese satellites had captured large floating debris, potentially from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in the southern Indian Ocean. The search for missing flight MH370 is now entering its third week.

Malaysia’s Minister of Defence and acting Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein speaks at a press conference on March 22, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The press conference was interrupted with breaking news that Chinese satellites had captured large floating debris, potentially from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in the southern Indian Ocean. The search for missing flight MH370 is now entering its third week. (Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

“If they can’t offer something firm, they ought to just shut up,” said Nan, who is representing the family as well as Yan’s 23-year-old girlfriend.

Nan said Yan travelled frequently and had not talked about the Malaysia trip with his family, who come from the eastern province of Jiangsu.

“The last time he talked to us was about half a month before this happened. He travels quite frequently on business trips anyway, so we don’t chat about his business trips on the phone,” Nan said.

Volunteer psychologist Paul Yin, who has worked with some of the relatives, said not knowing the fate of their loved ones was preventing them from confronting their grief.

“When there is uncertainty for several days, people go from hope to despair, and back again, making it impossible to bring final healing,” Yin said.

Thursday and Friday were particularly difficult days for the relatives, about 100 of whom are staying at the sprawling Lido Hotel complex in eastern Beijing. Another two dozen flew to Kuala Lumpur, where there have also been emotional scenes at news briefings.

Word came Thursday that satellite imagery had captured debris that might be part of the lost aircraft. That night, Malaysian officials from several government departments flew to Beijing to communicate directly with the relatives.

But searches by plane and ship turned up no sign of any wreckage. The officials’ presentation, meanwhile, was largely a reiteration of what the relatives already knew, without much new information.

“We’re exhausted,” Wang said. “Why did the plane fly so far away? Are the people still alive? Is this new piece of information reliable? This is how I feel.”

Wang said he still had hope and was praying that the Australian reports that debris from the plane may have been spotted turned out to be false. He said he and other relatives had lingering suspicions about what they were being told by the Malaysian side, but were at a loss as to what to do next.

“We feel they’re hiding something from us,” Wang said.

The distrust of the authorities is rooted in modern China’s experience with the arbitrary use of power and scorning of public opinion by the single-party communist state, social commentators say.

Australian Flight Lieutenant Jason Nichols (L), on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, looks ahead towards the HMAS Success as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return.

Australian Flight Lieutenant Jason Nichols (L), on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, looks ahead towards the HMAS Success as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. (Rob Griffith / AFP/Getty Images)

“China is now at a time of escalating social problems and government actions have sharpened the distrust,” said Shi Shusi, an independent commentator and journalist with the official Worker’s Daily newspaper.

Repeated government coverups in the name of preserving stability have had a corrosive effect on public trust, Shu said. That’s created a mindset that is hard to reverse, despite a relatively prompt and thorough response from the government, he said.

“Once the government lies, it’s difficult to restore public belief,” Shu said.

Wang said he last spoke with his parents on the night of their departure, shortly before they boarded the plane. They told him they were busy filling out exit cards and would call him upon their arrival in Beijing.

“I will stay here until they give me an answer,” he said. “I am not leaving until I know for certain where my parents are. I am not leaving any time before that.”
Whatever the outcome, Nan said the family would not let it derail their future.

“I never imagined a disaster like this would befall our family, but life has to continue,” she said.

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