MH17 air disaster: demand high for sunflower seeds

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims. Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

These emails are heartbreaking – sons and daughters; uncles and aunts; nieces and nephews; friends and colleagues, all reaching out for a little something by which to remember those who perished in the MH17 air disaster in July.

Relatives and friends of nearly all of 38 victims from Australia have written, asking for some of the sunflower seeds harvested by hand at the Ukrainian crash site by myself and photographer Kate Geraghty – hopefully to be grown as self-regenerating mementos of their lost loved ones.

Dozens more requests are coming from abroad, in response to a diplomatic ripple which began when the Dutch embassy in Canberra included Fairfax media reports in which we offered the seeds in dispatches to their head office. The embassy requested that the stories be circulated to the next of kin of 197 Dutch citizens who died when the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down, and also to embassies in The Hague of other nationals lost in the crash.

New requests come in each day. The running tally is for 130 packets of seed, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, but dozens are from The Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Malaysia and Indonesia. At that level of demand, we have sufficient seed for each packet to contain about a quarter of a cup of sunflower seed.

I don’t think it breaches the privacy we offered to all who might ask for some of the seeds to allude here to oft-repeated references in the emails to the solace to be had from sunflowers, fields of which carpeted the sprawling crash site in the disputed eastern region of Ukraine.

“The sunflower has become somewhat a symbol of their memory,” one writer said of parents lost in the crash. Another writes of a grieving relative: “Believe me when I say how wonderful it would be for my dear cousin to have something tactile to see and touch relevant to her loss.”

By far, the victim names we see over and over in the emails are those of the Catholic nun Sister Philomene Tiernan, from Sydney, and the Melbourne writer Liam Davison and his wife Frankie.

Some of this family-and-friend correspondence is tightly written and emotionally taut  – little more than a name for the victim and an address to which seeds can be mailed. Many become a homage to the author’s lost friend or relative, with a good number of them steeped in love and a few in regret for not having spent more time with the victim.

“We are bewildered and shattered by what has happened,” a parent writes of the loss of a son in the crash. “I dreamt of both his life and death last night.” Another writes baldly: “Our son was blown to pieces by the missile.”

A couple of them came in as blank emails – fired off even before a message could be included. But when I went back to the senders, they indeed wanted some seeds. Most endearing was a writer who was so overcome that it took four emails to convey just the basics – a name, that of a deceased relative and an address.

A good number are from extended family members and relatives, asking for seeds on behalf of immediate relatives of victims, which they intend to offer to them at a later stage – in the case of adults, if and when the pain of grief becomes more bearable; and in the case of small children or grandchildren, when they are older and can better appreciate the seeds.

This week some of the seeds are back in the air. But the quarantine issue made me pause before dropping the seeds at the Australian embassy in Washington, for dispatch to quarantine officials in Canberra – with so many requests coming from outside Australia, I figured I should hold some of the seed to send to families and relatives in countries with less rigorous quarantine regimes.

As a result, two Ziploc bags, containing almost 1 kilograms of seed, are on their way to the office of Nicole Hinder, the Canberra-based quarantine official who first drew my attention to quarantine rules and regulations. I still have one bag, containing less that half a kilogram, to send to victim families and friends outside Australia.

Confirming she had been advised by embassy staff that the seeds were in transit, Ms Hinder said by email: “I am planning to send the seeds to one of my plant pathologists who will do a viability test on them, and also confirm the ‘type’ of sunflower.

“Once we have this established (this initial test is pretty quick) I will come back to you with some advice about timings and what is happening with the seeds – as they transfer to one of our Post Entry Quarantine Stations or we discuss other options if they show evidence of non-viability.”

Subsequent emails from some Australia-based relatives and friends have revealed a range of emotions on the implications of the intervention by quarantine officials in our memorial seed venture – acceptance, suspicion or a hint of anxiety.

A woman in ACT writes: “Hang in there. It is awful but predictable, how ‘authorities’ are thwarting your wonderful effort, seemingly making light of it; as if there is any biosecurity hazard.”

And in the case of a couple in rural NSW, there is a touch of defiance. Underscoring their support in the face of the quarantine threat, they invoke a quote, which they say is from the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel –  “It’ll be all right in the end – and if it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

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