Article by a participant of the AIDS conference that about a hundred passengers of the shot-down Malaysian Boeing 777 were going to.
At four in the morning on June 18th I was woken up by a text with the worrisome contents: “Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight shot down near Donetsk.”
It was early in the morning in Australia, where I live, just like many of the families of the people that were onboard the MH17 flight. I went online, hoping to make sure it was just a strange dream. Already 20 minutes later in the hotel lobby I was standing with complete strangers in front of the TV screen and watching the reports from the crash site. The lobby was silent.
One senior man turned to me and asked: “Where are you from?” For the first time in my life, I understood I was scared of naming my home country. “From Ukraine.” He looked at me and simply said one single phrase: “You are not guilty.”
We spoke about something else – I really wanted to explain to him something I did not fully understand yet myself – why it happened…
James Chau, my friend and a famous CCTV News journalist who reported on the Malaysian MH370 airplane tragedy, which disappeared from the radars when the crisis in Ukraine was just starting, told me that morning: “Who would have thought I would be speaking of this news once again, just in the context of Ukraine now?”
Several hours later I found out that delegates for the AIDS conference that I came for a day earlier were onboard that plane.
I wrote to everyone who could have taken this flight, short messages with a single question: “Are you okay?” and received similar messages from people all over the world in response.
I understood that I don’t even know how to start my presentation at the forum. I did not even know where to find the strength to change the slide from the funny “sex is our job” to the realistic “make love – not war.”
The last drop in that morning’s horrifying marathon was the news that famous scientist Jop Lange was onboard the plane, a person that had high hopes as the creator of the cure against HIV infection, which could have replaced condoms. It is possible that this tragedy in the Donetsk skies sent us several years back and several thousands more young people all over the world will get infected with HIV.
The international AIDS conference usually gathers up to 30 thousand people twice a year. This time 12 thousand delegates flew in from all over the world, and each one of them could have taken this flight. Having put on the badge with UKRAINE written on it, I heard many times throughout the day, “From Ukraine?” and stopped to speak to complete strangers in order to simply exchange emotions in a human way.
On the day the conference was launched, there were many tears: one could find out the latest information regarding the MH17 flight at the black booths and tie a red ribbon as a sign of condolences. In their speeches, practically everyone spoke of the tragedy.
Some said that it was all symbolic. Over the territory of Ukraine, the country which suffered the most from the AIDS epidemic in Europe, a flight is taken down, on board which, there were scientists able to influence the epidemic’s development. And almost every single Ukrainian at the conference started their report with a moment of silence, with tears, with the attempt to explain what is happening in our country. For the first time since the beginning of these conferences, it was as important as their reports.
A colleague from Russia made her report at the same session I did, and when she said the expected, “I am from Russia,” she burst into tears… And for some reason it became easier to breathe…
When presenting one of our 2008 projects, we used the metaphor of the shot-down Boeing. We said that every month about 300 people die of AIDS in Ukraine – it is a Boeing full of people. If a plane crashes, all the media talk about it. The people dying of AIDS every day are less noticeable. They simply go.
Today the metaphor of the plane is especially relevant: each day, people die in the streets of Ukraine in an undeclared war, and we are already used to such news. An airplane that had no Ukrainians on board. A plane that had people of various nationalities, far from our conflict, made us see that as of today dozens of our compatriots are dying in this undeclared war, and that there is nobody that has been left untouched by this…
I also tied a red ribbon, just like hundreds of other conference participants. And within these few days I learned to say “I am Ukrainian” once again…
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina