MH370: A year of waiting, wondering and heartache for families

A year after Malaysia Airline Flight 370 disappeared, families struggle to survive amid unanswered questions

A year ago, makeup artist Cheng Liping and her husband Ju Kun, a martial arts expert, were living out their silver screen dreams. Cheng had just finished work on the Chinese kung fu film “Rise of the Legend.” Ju had recently joined the production of Netflix’s series “Marco Polo,” filming in Malaysia.

On March 8, Ju hopped Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, planning to be gone just four days on business. Cheng chose to stay behind in Malaysia and await his return.

That long weekend apart has now stretched into an eternity. The fateful decision has devastated Cheng but spared the couple’s sons – now 6 and 2 – the loss of both of their parents.

A year later, no wreckage of the missing aircraft has been found, no trace of Ju and the 238 others aboard has been discovered. The anniversary will be marked this weekend with a private gathering of some crew members’ families and Malaysia Airlines employees in Kuala Lumpur. Some passengers’ families are also planning a prayer service in Malaysia.

Those events will do little to soothe Cheng and many others whose relatives were aboard the ill-fated jet. They remain caught in an agonizing limbo of anger, frustration and sadness, holding out hope and feeling pressed to move on.

“Right now, I'm just waiting for the truth about MH370. I still have hopes that my husband can come back to us,” Cheng, her voice heavy with exhaustion, said after picking up her sons from school this week in Beijing. “I stopped working since the flight went missing and it's already been almost one year that I'm out of work. I'm facing a lot of pressure financially now to support my children.”

In January, Malaysia Airlines officially declared the plane’s disappearance the result of an accident, its most likely location the bottom of the Indian Ocean and everyone aboard presumed dead. That cleared the way for next of kin to move ahead with compensation claims.

But dozens of family members have denounced the move as premature, given the total absence of physical evidence. They say it is answers -- not money -- that they need.

“Money is useless. It means nothing to me. I can’t agree to something that would release Malaysia Airlines of responsibility,” said Li Lianying, whose daughter, son-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter were on the flight. “Am I to blame for this incident? Someone has to take responsibility, and no one has.”

A majority of those aboard were Chinese citizens, and in Beijing many next of kin are angry not only at Malaysia Airlines but also at Malaysian and Chinese authorities.

Earlier this week, Li said, several family members went to the office near Beijing’s international airport that the airline set up to assist families to request some kind of public commemoration – either at the airport, a nearby hotel, or at the Malaysian Embassy.

When they returned Wednesday, authorities from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and State Council were at the office, according to Li and two others. The officials, they said, warned them against holding any unauthorized gathering.

“I said, what do I have to lose?” Li recalled, her eyes welling up with tears. “They are playing around with us.”

China is in the middle of its annual legislative session, a high-profile event in Beijing that the government puts heavy emphasis on. “In China, politics always comes first,” she said.

Asked Friday whether China had any plans to commemorate the plane’s disappearance, or objected to the families gathering at the Malaysian Embassy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no specific information on whether there would be a commemorative event.

A tedious effort to map more than 20,000 square miles of Indian Ocean sea floor off Australia’s west coast is 40% complete and is slated to wrap up in May. So far, sonar scans have detected no objects that would be defined as “high-interest” and would “warrant immediate further investigation,” Australian officials said Thursday.

Until something is found, Li says she cannot bear to live in the 1,200-square-foot apartment she was sharing with her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. The couple were high school sweethearts; they had gone to Malaysia to mark their 10th wedding anniversary.

“My daughter was my only child, my granddaughter my only grandchild,” Li said. “Two generations have been wiped out.”

Li stays with others who lost family members on MH370, and occasionally overnights at her sister’s house. Her husband has gone to Malaysia to seek answers, paying his own way.

On New Year’s Eve, Li said, she and other family members were heartened when Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned MH370 in his New Year’s message to the nation. “We still don't know the whereabouts of over 100 Chinese people,” Xi said. “We have never forgotten them. We will continue to work hard and look for different ways to find them.”

“We were really inspired by that,” Li said. But hope soon turned to dejection. “Less than a month later, they declared the plane lost.”

Like Li, many other next of kin have found the disaster has transformed their lives in unexpected ways in the wake of the jet’s disappearance.

After MH370 went missing with their 21-year-old son aboard, Feng Zhishan and his wife Xie Xiucui moved 500 miles from their village in Jiangsu province to Beijing to await word. They have been living in a 150-square-foot room in a Beijing suburb, paying about $9 a month for the hovel. Before last year, they rarely left their hometown and spoke a local dialect of Chinese.

Since coming to the capital, Xie has learned to speak Mandarin and to use the social media program WeChat on her phone; she gets updates on MH370 from a family message group on the service, the Shanghai-based publication The Paper reported. She has searched in vain for a job, but been turned down even for janitorial work.

Meanwhile, Zhang Meiling, 65, from Beijing has been able keep living in the 3,000-square-foot apartment she used to share with her daughter and Indian Canadian son-in-law, Muktesh Mukherjee, and their two sons, ages 8 and 3. The couple vanished aboard MH370.

Zhang told the Chinese magazine Vista Kantianxia that Mukherjee’s employer, a Canadian energy firm, has allowed her to stay in the apartment, but Zhang was unable to afford the tuition for her grandchildren’s international schools in Beijing. So the boys moved to England to live with their paternal grandparents.

Since then, the boys’ Chinese-language skills have slipped, and Zhang finds her weekly computer video chats with them increasingly difficult. She’s now studying English in a bid to maintain a link with her descendants.

As for Cheng, the makeup artist, she says in the past year she has lost touch with her film-industry friends. “Even if they wanted to comfort me, they don't know what to say,” she said. “I mostly just stayed in touch with family members of the passengers on MH370.”

Still, Cheng has clung to some rituals. She sends messages to her husband's WeChat account to keep him up to date with the renovation of their apartment in Beijing's eastern suburbs.

Though her sons know Ju was on the plane, they don’t have a full understanding of what that means.

“I haven't told my sons about what happened to their father,” she said. “My older son became moody and got angry easily after the incident. They both asked sometimes where their father is and when their father would come back,” she said.

“But we don't really talk about it so much. They're still very young and it's hard for them to understand it all.”

Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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