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Dutch Pay Respects to MH17 Victims; Speaking to Uncle of Two Victims

Aired July 23, 2014 - 13:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Have they been -- have you been happy with the way you have been dealt with, the way they have handled this on your end? It's an extraordinarily difficult task.

HARUN CALEHR, UNCLE OF TWO MH17 VICTIMS (via telephone): Initially, we're all a little confused because of the lack of organized communication but -- you know, earlier in the week, when this tragic event happened. But after a day or two, things started to get better. And we had the forensic team visit us. And kind of acted as the conduit between them and us and the government to get us updates, for instance, about this beautiful event, and, you know, of getting the necessary information, the awkward questions about, you know, DNA and getting cotton swabs and just getting all the different data about the kids. But, yes, initially, it was a little disjointed. But, subsequently, we're quite satisfied about their response and, of course, the outpouring, it's just very, very moving. And it's a beautiful tribute.

COOPER: And, Harun, to see the 10s of thousands of people who have lined the highways, who continue to line the highways, who have waited for long periods of time to bear witness and to welcome the beginning, this first group of people home, that's got to make you feel this sense of community, which we are -- which really many people throughout the world feel right now.

CALEHR: Yes, the outpouring has been amazing. And it -- I've had the luck, I guess, of not ever having to attend something like this before. But it reminded me of seeing Dover Air Base, in I think it's Connecticut where, you know, our military heroes and the fallen heroes come in. It was essentially a military operation. I mean, there were -- the honor guard, the government officials were there.

But everything was very, very relaxed and, you know, there is a lot of closeness between all the victims and the government officials and -- I mean, besides not having draped coffins, everything else was done like clockwork. And we felt really honored. Unfortunately, we had to be there at such a poignant moment, but we felt, as of all the victims -- of course, we don't know which coffins contain which remains, but we, obviously, felt all those -- the family members were there. And so, we were very, very moved by everything here.

COOPER: You know, and one of the things a member of your family said earlier today was, we thought it was just us. We thought it was just us in our grief. And I don't know if she meant we thought it was just us as a family or we thought it was just us, the families of the victims. But on a day like this where you see so many people not just in the Netherlands but all around the world pausing to pay respects to your two nephews and to all the others and to these 40 who have first returned. You -- do you feel that as well, that it -- that it is not just you, that you are part of this? A -- that you are part of -- that you are supported?

CALEHR: Yes. I hate to draw an analogy, but was -- I remember, I was in law school at Tulane when 911 happened, and I was just on my way to class that morning. And, suddenly, we were all in the cafeteria and everybody started to cry and we saw the live events unfold on T.V. And I had deja vu of stuff like that again. It was just like, OK, this is not just a Netherlands thing or an Australian thing. Like, for instance, the two cargo planes, the military cargo planes, one was from the Australian Royal Air Force. It was a bigger cargo plane.

And then, there was the smaller ones from the Netherlands Royal Air Force. And you felt all this unity. I mean, there's people from Indonesia, from the Netherlands, from Germany. There's people from all over that were there grieving. And, of course, I haven't seen a lot of the footage because we're just coming back from that event. We're stuck in traffic right now coming back from that event. But just the camaraderie and the international outpouring. You -- it feels like we're a big grieving family. And that somewhat helps in -- you know, in coping with this horrible devastating event.

COOPER: Well, Harun, I know you haven't seen it, but I can tell you, there are 10s of thousands of people. Just extraordinary numbers of people on highway overpasses, all along the highway, who have been waiting for hours. As the hearses pass by, some just stand silently with their hands on their hearts. Some are crying. Some are applauding. But it seems like there's been this huge outpouring in the Netherlands on this national day of mourning. People have wanted to be there to take part in this.

And given the horror of how your nephews and the others lost their lives, and the horror of how they have been treated in eastern Ukraine, it seems that, on this day, the people of the Netherlands have turned out in tremendous numbers. And I think people around the world are watching in tremendous numbers because they want to -- they want to say that what happened to your nephews is unconscionable. And the way not only they died, but the way that they were treated, subsequently, it is unconscionable in a civilized world.

And, today, we have seen, for the first time, how one treats those who have died. And I don't know if you'll look at the images later on today, but it is just -- it's an extraordinary outpouring. And I hope that gives some comfort. Not that it will in any way ameliorate your pain. But I hope it gives some comfort in the difficult days and weeks and months and even years ahead for you and your family.

CALEHR: Yes, I hope so too. Like I said, between, I'm drawing back -- going back to 911 and it just felt like that, like we're one big happy -- one big grieving family that are happy to embrace one another and be there for each other, you know, a shoulder to cry on. But you mentioned my interview this morning with Chris Cuomo. After the live shot, him and my mother started conversing. And Chris gave her a hug and they both started crying. And it was just so emotional to see because he was sharing some of the horrors he had -- that he had seen while he was just coming back from the Ukraine late last night or early this morning. And some of the unspoken things he had seen. So, it was just very moving.

Just like a few days ago when the Dutch queen hugged my sister and they started crying together and she, you know, shared her emotions and said, you know, I can't believe what you must be going through as a mother. I'm a mother. This is just not something that any parent has to go through. So, like you said, this collective sadness and grieving, it helps somewhat. And, hopefully, you know, moving us towards the grieving process. But it's just something you can never, ever forget. Over time, maybe, the wounds will somewhat heal. But it's -- it is unconscionable, this act of terror.

COOPER: And, Harun, I know when you and I talked several days ago, Dutch authorities had taken DNA samples I think from your sister in order to help the identification process. And they had been very blunt about what happens now. And they had been very blunt. And I know -- was that, A, something that you appreciated? I know it's obviously difficult to hear. But there are decisions that I guess as a family now you have to make in terms of memorializing your nephews. Have you -- have you made those decisions or is that something you're going to wait on until you get confirmation? Or this is something you haven't really decided?

CALEHR: Well, that's the ironic thing about this whole drama and this whole -- this whole sad event. I mean, I've been an aviation attorney, among others, for the last seven year, flying all over the world to many, many country, dealing with many, many aviation crashes. And as a professional, you know, helping victims get compensation, find the truth, you know, make airlines responsible and hopefully improve their safety record, and now I'm here -- in a million years, I never thought I would be sitting there in a room with forensic investigators listening to things that I've heard so many times over, but it was just never me, it was somebody else. I mean, you were detached. You know, you grieve with these families but you're there. You're trying to do a job. You're trying to help someone, trying to put them on a clear path so that they can understand what needs to be done next. As harsh as that sometimes may sound, I mean, it's something that's administrative.

So, when I was sitting in a room, you know, accompanying my sister and my mother, listening to them talk and, you know, discussing the next step, the tangible things we have to do and the decisions that we have to make, on the one hand, of course, emotions were about to take over. On the other hand, I was, you know, trying to get -- stay composed and say, look, you know, this is what needs to be done. We need to make these horrible decisions. And try to advise my family as best as I can about things that I've done in the past so many times with other grieving families.

So, you know, obviously, everyone that was in attendance today, nobody really knew which coffins contain which remains or if any of the people in attendance. But we all felt so happy and sad, at the same time, to see these coffins. So, as people were breaking down, they realized this is really coming home to them. I mean, before, you see it on T.V. It's far away. But now, you know, this is something that's really happening.

So, you know, I have a respect for what they're doing. They're very apologetic. And they preface every difficult question, you know, with a huge apology. And they say, look, if you're not ready, we'll come back. But they have to do a job and a thorough job and they keep emphasizing that thoroughness is the most important thing and it's a very, very difficult process.

COOPER: Harun, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us on this extraordinary difficult day. And I wish you and your family peace in the difficult days ahead. Thank you for being with us.

CALEHR: Thank you so much for the tribute that you're paying to my nephews, I appreciate it, and all the other victims. God bless, thank you.

COOPER: We're joined by Mayor Pieter Broertjes who is joining us by phone. The mayor of Hilversum. Oh, he's joining us live. Mr. Mayor, I appreciate you being with us. And I wanted to give you -- offer you my condolences and the condolences of all of us here at CNN for what you, your country and your town are going through. The outpouring of respect and dignity that we have witnessed in the last hour from people in the Netherlands is simply extraordinary. What are your thoughts on this day of mourning?

MAYOR PIETER BROERTJES, HILVERSUM, NEVERLANDS: Well, the thoughts are very sadness and the Netherlands are in shock, in Hilversum, as well. We lost 13 people, young people from 16 to 18 years old, like Quinn Shonsman. He is the man with a U.S. passport, and his father lays flowers now here -- well, to welcome the remains of the -- of the -- of the people which is expecting here within five minutes. So, it's a very emotional moment.

COOPER: I spoke to Quinn's grandfather several days ago. Quinn was 19 years old. Had his whole life ahead of him. Quinn's grandfather had worked in hotels his whole life.


COOPER: Quinn talked about perhaps doing that. So many -- so many people from your town, I mean, 13 people, that is an extraordinary loss for a town of your size to suffer.

BROERTJES: That's an -- yes, 85,000 people and it's -- everybody is connected with everybody, and it's because of the football, the soccer clubs and the tennis clubs and also the schools. All these young people went to school. And, well, it's a great loss. It's a great loss.

COOPER: What will happen -- you said that the first hearses should be arriving within several minutes. What will happen when they arrive? BROERTJES: Yes. Well then, the process of identification will start.

And it's a very important process. Because all the people who lost their belongings and their beloveds, they want to know if there's some remains still. And, well, that's what has to be done here in Hilversum. And we start that process just this evening. So, we try to do it in a tempo, quickly and secure. So, it's a very important moment in the whole process.

COOPER: Did you personally know some of the people on board, some of the 13, from your town?

BROERTJES: No. No, I didn't. But I met the relatives the last four or five days. Very intensively. And, well, I am very grateful that I can do something for the people. I can listen to them. And I can ask -- I can -- and can give answers to the asked -- to the -- to the questions. So, that's very important for them. And they -- well, it's to give comfort to people in this very sad period of their lives.

COOPER: I read, just now, somebody on Twitter watching our coverage saying that -- from the Netherlands, saying, my country is silenced by grief. And you really get that sense in seeing all those who have lined the roads, who are there in Hilversum, who are waiting. There is this sense of just stunned to silence.


COOPER: And this, just the beginning. This is really just the first --


COOPER: -- group of people who are beginning to return home.

BROERTJES: This is the beginning. And we -- yes, that's correct. And we thank you, President Obama, for his condolences yesterday, and for his -- well, his interest in and for the whole situation here in Holland. So, thank you so much.

COOPER: Mr. Mayor -

BROERTJES: I have to leave now because the --

COOPER: Absolutely. Mr. Mayor, thank you for your time. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Mayor. Appreciate it.

BROERTJES: Thanks so much. Thank you.

COOPER: The mayor of Hilversum. An extraordinary, again, 13 people from a town of 85,000 people, and they should be arriving in Hilversum shortly.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: I was listening to the mayor speaking and I was thinking, how does a community recover? How does a country recover? We know they do because there have been atrocities before. We know they do because there have been accidents, there have been these sort of disasters before. But the pain in the scares. I think back to Dunblane in Scotland where there was a mass murder. I think back to the other occasions in this country, in the United States, where there have been atrocities and communities come together and they do recover. But the scars always remain.

COOPER: Christiane Amanpour is also joining us in our coverage of this national day of mourning in the Netherlands. This day of community, as Richard Quest said, really, around the world.

And, Christiane, there is that sense, as you watch this, this sense of community, the community there in the Netherlands, the international community watching this with heavy hearts and with sadness. And how can you not contrast these extraordinary images with the horror of the images we have seen over the last several days in eastern Ukraine.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that's absolutely the point, that these victims, who have now come back in proper coffins, given, you know, a very precise and painstaking military help to their final resting place. The incredibly beautiful and haunting sounds of "Taps" that were sounded, that lone bugle this morning as the plane landed in Eindhoven. And now it is electrifying, honestly, to see these people lining the route because, as people have said so often this morning, the Dutch are a reserved people, but this is beyond anybody's reserve and it's beyond really I think international and global understanding.

And one remembers, even though we were all too young to have been there in 1968 when Robert Kennedy's casket was taken by train from - I believe from New York to Washington to be buried, everybody was lining the route. And this kind of reminds me of that because people have been taken away, you know, too soon, people have been taken away in a war that they -- it wasn't their war, but it was a war raging in Europe and they got caught up on it, people in this plane and -- through no fault of their own at all.


AMANPOUR: And I think the indecency and the absolute lack of apology from those who did it and the way they treated it and to have the criminals in charge of the crime site, as the prime minister of Australia said, in the early days and to have seen the desecration, and that is the right word to use -


AMANPOUR: Of the crash site. And compare that to, now, this music, the solemnity of the officials, the whole community coming together, and as I say, a military honor guard for these victims.

COOPER: I want to just go to Amersfoort, Netherlands, and let's just listen in just -- I want to - just for our viewers to hear the music at this church service honoring the victims.


COOPER: Kiria (ph) Arlazon (ph) in Amersfoort, Netherlands.

We're going to take a short break. Our coverage continues in just a moment.


COOPER: People who have stopped - people who have stopped their cars along the side of the road to pay their respects to the 40 -- the first 40 victims of crash MH17 heading toward Hilversum in the Netherlands where the process of beginning to identify them will begin. Family members are there. Tens of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, have turned out along the highway in Hilversum, a town of 85,000 people, to welcome these 40 - I would almost use the word strangers. But on this day, it feels like they are not strangers, though we don't know who exactly is in the coffins, which bodies are in the coffins, which people, men or women, adults or children, infants. On this day, there is that sense of community, as Richard Quest, that word he has used so rightly on this day, a sense of community in the Netherlands on a national day of mourning.

The mayor there in Hilversum, who has been speaking with the families from that town, in fact, that's where the family of Quinn (ph), a 19- year-old who had dual nationality, a Dutch citizen but also a citizen of the United States. He was born in the United States when his father was working for the Dutch government here in the United States.

QUEST: And I'm much taken this morning, Anderson, as I watch these pictures, I see these people standing on the bridges and by the roadsides. I listen to the music. And I see the tweets that we are receiving of people around the world who are this sense of community.

COOPER: Let's listen in to a service happening right now at St. Yurs (ph) in Amersfoort.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, (through translator): Dear Lord, we pray to you, please be with us, especially be with all the relatives and next of kin and all those people so deeply affected. Be with all those people who have loved - who's lost - who've lost their loved ones, their friends, their colleagues, acquaintances. Please be with them and stay with them, God. Give them light in the darkness.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Dear God, we are confused and very upset and angry that this was allowed to happen, that there was no respect shown to the bodies of people who lost their lives, that bodies were left and it took so long for those bodies to be identified. We beg you, please let the law run its course. That is how we come to you, to have our say, believing that you know what we cannot put in words. What goes beyond our senses and what we can just not deal with, with our emotions, we beg you, please, console us, please stay with us, please give us light in our darkness.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Dear God, we are thinking of the victims. We are thinking of all those who are so much -- very much missed, all those who we know, all those who we have heard. We remember their lives. Their lives that were short or long or very short. You know who they are and what they have meant. We beg you, please bless their memories. We trust that you know them, even in their deaths that you are loyal to your people also in death, that they who fell will not pass through your fingers.