BEIJING – Nearly every day, the retired factory worker goes to the airline office, riding a series of buses across Beijing to hand-deliver a letter. And nearly every day, the letter says the same thing. "Tell us the truth, and get our loved ones back to us."
Once she hands over the letter, Dai Shuqin gets back on the bus and goes home, back to a small apartment where boxes hold copies of hundreds of letters she has delivered over the past two years, all begging for news on her sister and four other relatives who vanished when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014.
There were 239 people on board. Most of the passengers on the plane, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, were Chinese. So across China, dozens of families are still wrestling with how — or if — to accept that their relatives are dead.
Investigators believe the Boeing 777 crashed in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean, killing everyone on board after flying far off course and running out of fuel. But they have only theories to explain exactly what happened, or why. Only one confirmed piece of plane wreckage has been found, a battered, rowboat-sized wing part that washed up on an Indian Ocean island about eight months ago.
What can you do when you don't know what happened to people you loved? Some of the grieving families have filed lawsuits, including 12 families who did so Monday. Some have accepted cash settlements with Malaysia Airlines in exchange for agreeing not to file suit. Many are still debating what to do. And some, like Dai, find their only solace comes in believing that their relatives are still alive.
"I have no other ways to handle this. ... Going to Malaysia Airlines every day gives me a bit of relief, and I feel I am doing something for my sister"
As a result, their lives are now consumed by demanding answers from an airline that has few answers at all.
"People say we are nuts," said Dai, a 62-year-old woman whose younger sister was on the flight, along with her sister's husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandson. "But for us, we have the feeling that our loved ones are still alive." Officials "just tell us all the passengers are dead. We don't accept that. If they tell us the truth, or give us a convincing explanation, then we'll stop coming here every day."
She does not care if her quest looks impossible. "I can't sleep and I can't get over this," Dai said. Her apartment has few decorations beyond a large world map stuck to one wall. A folding metal table is covered with copies of letters sent to the airline. "I have no other ways to handle this. ... Going to Malaysia Airlines every day gives me a bit of relief, and I feel I am doing something for my sister."
Many relatives believe the real story of MH370 has been hidden from them. They disagree on what may have happened, debating theories and trading facts and rumors. But few believe they know the entire truth.
That suspicion is heightened in China, where widespread censorship and the official control of access to information has led to a general sense among Chinese that what they see in the media, or hear from the government, is not to be trusted. This widespread cynicism foments a quiet if deep-seated anger, and a willingness to accept conspiracy theories. Kelly Wen, who runs a furniture store, is desperate to move on, to find a way to start her life again after her husband disappeared with the plane. But she remains overwhelmed by the loss.
"My family is still in the shadow of the MH370 accident," said Wen, a 31-year-old Beijing resident with a 5-year-old son now left without a father. "I can't work like I did before because there are too many issues I need to handle in my family. But I do hope I can gradually walk out of the accident and go back to work."
With the second anniversary approaching, Wen increasingly believes she needs to make up her mind about what to do. "I need to decide whether to accept compensation and reach agreement with Malaysian Airlines or file suit in court," she said. She and some 80 other relatives of MH370 passengers went together to meet Malaysia Airlines staff in late February to get updates on the situation. From the start, it did not go well. Outside the airline office were nearly two dozen policemen in case there was trouble. When they left, few of the relatives were satisfied.
They had come with detailed questions about the status of the search and the investigation. Wen wanted to see security video of passengers boarding the aircraft. The search is expected to end in June, plane or no plane, and they wanted more details on that decision. But no security video was released, she said, and little new information emerged. Few of the relatives have faith in the official investigation, which was set up by Malaysia and includes experts from Malaysia, Australia, China, Britain, the U.S. and France.
"We hope we can have a third-party, independent investigation when they stop search-and-rescue in June," she said. After the meeting, about 10 members of the group ate lunch together in a nearby restaurant. "This kind of gathering is very important for us," said Wen.
"We are already so helpless. If we don't gather among other relatives, we will feel even more lonely," she said. Dai, however, doesn't think much about moving on. For the foreseeable future, her life is about delivering the letters that she and other relatives have signed. A year ago, her only daughter had a baby, her only grandchild. Now, her daughter wants Dai to look after the little boy. But Dai says that won't happen. Going to the airline office takes up too much of her time.