AMSTERDAM: On a vast expanse of green not far from the Amsterdam Schiphol international airport stands 298 trees – one for each life lost tragically in a crime against humanity almost six years ago.
Each tree represents one person on board ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 which took off from the Schiphol airport and was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
The vast majority – 193 out of the total 298 – of those who perished in the downing of the aircraft were Dutch. The rest included Malaysians, Australians, Britons, and 13 other nationalities.
With the case returning to the spotlight with the start of the trial tomorrow, the number of visitors to this MH17 memorial park has expectedly increased.
They comprise mostly family members of victims and media from around the world who have converged here for the trial of four men accused of shooting the Boeing 777 out of the sky over eastern Ukraine and murdering all those on board.
While an international investigation has concluded that the aircraft was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile transported from Russia and fired from pro-Russian rebel-controlled territory, Moscow has vigorously denied any involvement.
No matter how heated the trial may get at the heavily-secured Schiphol Judicial Court (JCS) complex nearby, this memorial forest will remain a tranquil oasis and a place of quiet reflection, a fitting tribute for those on board MH17 that fateful day.
Officially called National Monument MH17, the memorial was opened on July 17, 2017 in a ceremony attended by Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima.
Since then, commemoration ceremonies have been held there annually.
Funded by donations, the memorial was designed by Dutch artist Ronald A. Westerhuis and landscape architect Robbert de Koning.
It is open 24 hours a day and is easily accessible as it is located in Vijfhuizen, near the Schiphol airport.
All the trees at the memorial are planted in the shape of a ribbon and labelled with a number, name, age and nationality, said Piet Ploeg, chairman of Stichting Vliegramp MH17 (MH17 Aircraft Disaster Foundation).
The foundation was set up to enable family members of victims, all the "partners in misfortune", to exchange information and receive support.
Ploeg, a former public administrator, now works full-time at the foundation, which is supported by the Dutch government.
Ploeg lost his older brother Alex, his sister-in-law and nephew when MH17 was shot down.
His brother, a biologist, had wanted to take his wife and son on a trip to the tropics. While their remains have been found, those of Ploeg's brother have not.
Ploeg said at the heart of the ribbon of trees was an amphitheatre with a stainless steel “eye” sculpture that has all the names of MH17 passengers engraved on it.
During the peak of summer, the trees are surrounded by a wreath of more than 20,000 sunflowers, reminiscent of the field of flowers in eastern Ukraine where some parts of the plane wreckage were found.
Ploeg shared that the sunflowers were grown from seeds brought back from the site of the crash by journalists.
"A journalist also brought me some soil from the site in a box. I opened it and smelt kerosene, fire and death. I still have the box but can't bring myself to open it anymore."
Anton Kotte, who started the initiative to build the monument, said some aspects of the memorial forest was designed to replicate the site of the crash.
"This is because many family members want to visit the crash site but can't because of the volatility in eastern Ukraine."
Kotte lost his son, daughter-in-law, and 6-year-old grandchild in the disaster.
He said the first few photos to emerge from the crash site were of sunflower fields.
"As such, sunflowers are a very important symbol for relatives."
Acknowledging this, Ploeg added that sunflowers were special for many family members as "it was on a sunflower field that our loved ones were found".
sonally, since that dark day, I have grown to really hate sunflowers."