Falling From The Skies

It was a year ago today that a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet was shot down in the skies over Ukraine, presumably by Russian-backed (and armed) rebels. There will be remembrance ceremonies in many countries today as families and friends continue to mourn.

Airline tragedies receive a lot of publicity. When something goes wrong at 35,000 feet people are probably going to die in large numbers. We pay attention because all of us, no matter how seasoned the traveler, know that bad things can happen when you fly. (We also know air travel is safer than automobile travel – but individual car accidents don’t generate the same amount of publicity.) But you don’t expect to get shot down by a surface to air missile.

I followed the news coverage surrounding MH17 closer than I ordinarily would have because there was a very real sense that it could have happened to me. No, I would not have been on a plane traveling from Kyiv to Kuala Lumpur – but I could have been on a plane in Ukrainian airspace at that time if our travel plans hadn’t changed.

My wife, Vivian likes to visit places she has never been before. For our 2014 European vacation, which was to include the UK, Belgium, France and Germany, she wanted to add a country she had never visited. As I put the plans together, I thought Ukraine was the logical choice.

Through my work in the Canadian parliament I have come into contact with young men and women taking part in the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program, university students who come to Canada for nine weeks each fall to learn about Canadian democracy. I have kept in touch with a few of them, and it seemed to makes sense to put Ukraine on the itinerary – we could possibly convince one or more of them to lend a hand as guides or interpreters.

Those plans changed when pro-democracy protests escalated into violence and the president of Ukraine was deposed. I decided that it wasn’t the right time to visit – the situation was a bit too volatile for my taste.

So we went to Romania instead. Having been there once I can’t wait to go back. We flew from Romania to Germany, and it was in our hotel room in Lippstadt that I first saw the CNN report on the downing of MH17.

As I followed the coverage I reflected on what might have been. If we had gone to Ukraine, if we had traveled to eastern Ukraine, that could have been our plane. It was a sobering thought.

So today I will be remembering. I didn’t know anyone on MH17, but I will join in spirit with the families and friends who lost loved ones that day.

One year after later Ukraine is still beset by civil war, though there is little mention of the conflict in my daily newspaper. More than six thousand people have died, which is a small number compared to the ongoing struggles with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but still significant. Many more have become refugees within Ukraine’s borders, displaced by the military conflict. Nothing much seems to have changed in a year.

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