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Dutch City Struck By MH17 Tragedy Takes Solace In Sunflowers

Dutch Town Battles MH17 Trauma
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Dutch Town Battles MH17 Trauma

HILVERSUM, The Netherlands -- In this Dutch city struck by the tragedy of flight MH17, sunflowers taken from the crash site help seed healing and remembrance.

The towering perennials provide a welcome contrast to the somber mood in Hilversum ahead of a painful anniversary, their brilliant yellows casting rays of hope from the main churchyard, outside city hall, and in downtown market stalls.

Fifteen Hilversum residents -- including three entire families -- would never return home after boarding MH17 en route to Malaysia on July 17, 2014. They were among 298 passengers -- 193 of them Dutch -- who died when the airliner went down over eastern Ukraine that fateful day.

It was the country's most devastating air disaster in decades, but it hit particularly hard in Hilversum, a city of 85,000 half an hour's drive southeast of Amsterdam.

"I want to see it every day," Reverend Julius Dresme, pastor of the St. Vitus Church, says of a makeshift shrine to the Hilversum's victims that he assembled in his office.

"This is a family ... a father mother and two children. This is another family, a nephew of parishioners," Dresme says as he looks over the collection of photographs and personal mementos. "They were just married, their child was almost a year old. They were also in the plane, they all crashed. The whole family is dead."

He recalls darker days. "In the beginning it was a total shock," he says. "Everybody was involved and it was like everybody had family on the plane."

He opened the church upon hearing about the crash, and conducted funerals and memorial services.

"In the first month, in the first weeks, in the first days" after the crash, Dresme says, "it was hot outside but cold inside."

Throughout the ordeal, he has kept in touch with relatives of those lost, and is confident that the city will pull through.

To him, the victims live on in the sunflowers that grow in front of St. Vitus.

“The sunflowers bring us back to the crash site because the crash site was full with sunflowers," Dresme says as he strolls by five sunflowers -- one for each Hilversum family that lost members to the tragedy. "They console us a bit," he adds, "and they give seeds for the future."

The sunflowers have direct ties to the crash site, coming from a sunflower field near the Ukrainian town of Torez.

An American journalist gave seeds taken from the field to the father of a Hilversum boy killed in the crash. Some were given to the church, and others entrusted to the city's chief gardener, Hans Roon, who planted them in Hilversum's botanical garden and now tells the tale.

The seeds from those plants are to be given away away at a memorial service to be held at St. Vitus on 17 July, one year after the crash.

"What you see here are the 30 plants that will be taken to the church and given out by the mayor to families of the victims, and schools and sport clubs, etc.," says Roon. "It was a really good thought, because the seeds, they become flowers; they have seeds again, and on and on. And you can see, there's life."

The sunflowers will continue to grow in the botanical garden, providing seeds to be passed to visitors, spreading the tribute across the country and beyond.

"I think it will continue," Roon says as he waters the flowers, noting with a sad smile that "there will always be seeds from Ukraine now in Holland."

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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