Jon O’Brien’s statement to the MH17 Criminal Trial

District Court of The Hague

My name is Jon O’Brien. My son Jack aged 25, was killed when  MH17 was shot down.

This is a difficult task. How can I share what matters so deeply and has affected me so profoundly?

Jack, our first child, was born on a rainy Sunday morning on April 2 1989. I came home from the hospital after his birth, sat on the edge of the bed and cried, saying over and over, “He’s such a little fella”. I loved him then and I have loved him ever since.

We heard the news that Friday morning on the radio. The news that every parent dreads. We were plunged immediately into shock and disbelief. The piercing pain and overwhelming grief would come later.

Jack’s sudden and violent death has shattered me. From the outside it may look as if nothing has changed. But inside I am wounded and broken. I don’t see how these wounds can ever heal.

I want to state that the greatest consequence of MH17 is for Jack and all those who were killed that day. Their lives were not lost. They were taken!  

Jack was robbed of his life.  My grief over his death has affected every part of my life and the most important aspects of who I am.

I miss Jack so much. I miss his presence in our house. I miss seeing him emerge from his room in the morning, stroll across our backyard to stand on the earth in the sunlight. I miss him, earphones in, completely absorbed in some podcast on exercise or nutrition. I miss the way he and our daughter Bronwyn, would laugh together at my attempts at humour. I miss hearing the sound of his car pull up outside, the key in the door, and him coming over to the kitchen bench to see what was cooking, “What’s for dinner dad?” I  miss playing with him in his football team, something we would have done the day after he returned home.

MH17 has robbed us of seeing Jack’s life unfold in the future. We did not witness his satisfaction at moving out into his own place, which he was about to do. I will never see his joy in winning a championship with his football team. He won’t finish his study to become a personal trainer. I will never be called upon to make a speech at his wedding, tell embarrassing stories and share how proud I am of him. I will never hold his child as I once held him.

There won’t be any more conversations between us. He won’t tell me of his plans. We won’t reminisce about the good times in his childhood. There will be no opportunity to talk about the things I regret as parent, where I failed or hurt him in some way.

Nothing can make up for all these losses.  No punishment will cancel out the wrong of his life being taken.

People might say, you still have Meryn and Bronwyn. That is true, but over the last seven years Jack’s death has cast a shadow over us all.

My role as a parent is very important to me. Being Jack and Bronwyn’s dad, actively involved in their lives from the beginning, has brought me the greatest joy and satisfaction. Now part of that is gone. 

As parents we long for our children’s wellbeing. We want to know they are safe and doing well. There is great relief when there has been some threat or trouble, but it has passed and everything is OK once more.  Now things can never be OK in quite the same way again.

I have struggled to find meaning and purpose in my daily life. Things that previously were satisfying are not as engaging. I had been in a new job for just 9 months when Jack was killed. I did not return to full time work until the next year.  I could not focus like I used to. I had less drive and energy.  While some of that has returned and while I still care about the issues I work on, I cannot muster the same enthusiasm and commitment I used to have.

Much of life seems muted now. I still enjoy things, time with friends, the beauty of nature, the satisfaction of a task completed, but it’s like the sound and colour of life has been dialled down to a lower level. I used to look forward to retirement, and what we might do. That anticipation is less now.

Big questions run through my head. What happens when we die? Will the wrongs of this world ever be put right? What significance do we have really? I suppose these are normal human questions, but they are magnified by grief. For me, the stakes are much higher now. And there is the question I think many bereaved parents, whether atheist or believer ask, will I ever see my child again? I am a Christian. The Church I belong to speaks of God’s ultimate purpose as the reconciliation and renewal of all creation. In other words, things will be put right. I find that a compelling hope, though hard to grasp. But looking at the way the world is, it can seem like a fantasy. I choose to hope, but I find myself living between hope and despair.

There have been times when my life and the whole world felt futile. What is the point of caring if what is most precious can be snatched away? I didn’t want to live in a world without Jack in it.

I realise this is very self-focused, as if my suffering matters more than that of so many other people in the world. But I discovered that is one of the results of intense grief. The world shrinks to a ball of misery with you at the centre and it becomes hard to see beyond that.

I know the war in eastern Ukraine has resulted in enormous destruction and the deaths of at least 16,000 people. All those affected families and communities must be grieving their losses, as we are.

My grief and sadness have been overwhelming at times. I had thoughts about ending my life. But I do want to live, and I could not inflict even more pain on my family.

Witnessing Meryn and Bronwyn’s deep grief brings another kind of pain. I cannot relieve their suffering or undo what we have lost. There is a photo of Meryn on Mothers’ Day 2014, just a couple of weeks before Jack went away. She is sitting on our back deck with a lovely breakfast cooked by Bronwyn. Jack comes out, takes in the scene, and pleased for his mum and wanting to be part of it all, leans in while Bronwyn takes a picture of them both. Jack is grinning and Meryn has an expression of unbridled joy and happiness on her face, reflecting love for both her children. I wonder when I will see that look of sheer, undiluted happiness on Meryn’s face again.

We know Bronwyn grieves for Jack, her only sibling, intensely. She had the reasonable expectation that she would share life with him for another 60 years or more. Now she must make her way without his presence. Like many brothers and sisters, they fought and had differences, but underneath was a deep bond.  I am heartbroken they will not have the chance to accompany one another and grow even closer, through the rest of their lives.  

These are some of the impacts of Jack’s death on my life. They are magnified by other aspects of the MH17 atrocity. Jack was killed by other human beings, in an act of mass murder, possibly a war crime. It happened as part of a military conflict, waged by a powerful nation state. All this occurred on the world stage under intense media scrutiny. The graphic images of what happened, the sheer volume of coverage, the constant speculation in the media about the causes, all added to my distress and suffering.

But there is a further element of MH17 that caused us harm, confusion and later, great anger. That is the relentless misinformation, denials and lies peddled by the Russian state about what happened.

In the first months I was troubled by the many, often contradictory stories about what happened to MH17 appearing in media.

 “MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian jet.”  “The plane was blown up by a missile intended for the Russian President’s plane.”  “The jet was already full of dead bodies and deliberately crashed.”  “MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile but not one of Russia’s.

These stories were then magnified 1000-fold in posts on different social media.  All this material was disturbing and confusing. Only later did I realise that this was exactly what was intended. These stories were part of a systematic, state orchestrated campaign of misinformation intended to distract, distort and confuse.  The aim was not just to hide the truth, but to convey the idea that there is no objective truth about MH17 to be found, and that one explanation of what happened was as good as any other. The fact that some of the explanations coming from the Kremlin and its news and social media channels were ludicrous, does not make them less offensive, harmful and wrong.  I am sure all nations hide the truth and lie sometimes. But in my opinion, concerning MH17, the Russian Federation has been relentlessly deceitful.  And while many of these stories have been shown to be utterly baseless, there has never been a retraction or apology from the Russian state for promoting them.

I have also found the Russian Federation’s lack of cooperation in handing over evidence to the JIT and continuing denials of any involvement in the shooting down of MH17, offensive. Their failure to take any responsibility for MH17, conveys a callous disregard and lack of respect for those killed and for their families. And it means the survivors are denied an important source of information about what happened and why it happened. I know that information will not bring Jack or anyone else back. But I have a desire to understand what occurred, to try to make some sense of what seems so senseless.

All this is why the work of this court is so important. In its careful, impartial, weighing of the evidence this court affirms that the truth exists and establishing it matters. And in doing that and seeking to hold those who are responsible for the shooting down of MH17 accountable, it upholds the dignity, worth and rights of the people we love.

The court invites us to consider what consequences should apply if the accused are found guilty.

At a personal level I wonder what is appropriate. I am a follower of Jesus, who said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. I don’t know what to do with that here. I don’t understand how there can be forgiveness without some admission of responsibility and expression of regret. And exactly who or what am I forgiving?

At a wider level, this is a horrific crime. Two hundred and ninety-eight people had their lives brutally snuffed out, but many other lives have been deeply marred. I believe the punishment must fit the scale of the crime and the intention behind it.

If the accused are found guilty, and others in the future, I want them to know what they have done. I mean really know it, from the mouths and lives of the people left behind. I also wonder what the perpetrators thought they were doing and why they were doing it. So, they should at least read and hear these accounts. In time perhaps there could be some meeting between victims and perpetrators, for those willing, to say more.

People ask does the grief lessen over time. The pain does soften but the underlying sadness and longing for Jack remain. I think they always will.

We have imagined Jack telling us with some intensity, “You better f***ing well live now!” Jack’s death has fundamentally changed our lives. It is another life we have now. We will try to live this one as fully as possible, for Jack’s sake, and for our sake. But some part of me will always be waiting, waiting to see what my death may reveal and if I will be able to find Jack again.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this statement to the Court.