AustraliaCarrying on after 'the world ends'

05:06  10 june  2019
05:06  10 june  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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These children and their granddad became a symbol of a senseless act of war, killed when MH17 was shot down. For the first time, their parents reveal how they found hope and meaning in the five years since the tragedy.

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Carrying on after 'the world ends'© Supplied: Maslin family Evie, Mo and Otis Maslin became a symbol of the senseless tragedy of MH17. These children and their granddad became a symbol of a senseless act of war, killed when flight MH17 was shot down. For the first time, their parents share how they are finding hope and meaning in the five years since, and why they choose love over hate.

It's a summer night in Amsterdam and the windows of their apartment are wide open.

Carrying on after 'the world ends'
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Anthony Maslin (Maz) and his wife Marite Norris (Rin) look over the darkened rooftops in the early hours of the morning.

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They wonder if they should jump.

Separately or together?

They decide not to. They don't want to inflict the pain they are feeling on anybody else.

That morning they had said goodbye to their three children, 12-year-old Mo, 10-year-old Evie and eight-year-old Otis. They had all just shared a joyous family holiday with Rin's dad Nick Norris, a respected headmaster-turned-education consultant.

The sandy-haired kids were heading back home to Perth with Granddad Nick to start the school term.

Their parents would follow two days later, after finalising some matters in the Netherlands.

Rin and Maz told them they would see them soon, as they waved farewell at the taxi rank down the road from their apartment.

That afternoon, they cycled through the famous Vondlepark and Maz marvelled at their good fortune.

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WorldEnd, short for What Do You Do at the End of the World ? Are You Busy? Will You Save Us? (終末なにしてますか? 忙しいですか? 救ってもらっていいですか?, Shūmatsu Nani Shitemasu ka?

"We sat there on this beautiful balcony looking out over the lake, having a drink, and I remember saying to Rin, 'You know that it just doesn't get any better than this, the last couple of weeks have been phenomenal'," he says.

Less than a day later, their world ended.

Granddad Nick took the children to Schiphol airport and checked them onto Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

The plane took off on schedule at 12:31pm local time on July 17, 2014.

An hour and a half later, somewhere over Eastern Ukraine, radar lost contact with the plane.

Ninety seconds later, fiery wreckage began raining down over fields of wheat and sunflowers outside the Ukrainian village of Hrabove.

Ahead of the five-year anniversary of the shooting down of MH17 next month, Rin and Maz want the world to know they are okay.

They are changed — in some ways they are stronger. There is also hope and joy.

"Where we were was hell," Rin says. "Where we are now is a different place, and what we feel we owe to the Australian public is to let you know how we got to where we are now."

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Maz adds they are just ordinary people to whom something extraordinarily bad happened.

"We've tried to live our lives as best as we can since then and we've done a really good job of it," he says.

The couple does this by looking for moments of happiness in each and every day.

'Tell me your kids weren't on that plane'

Maz wakes in the night and his phone is flashing with missed calls.

"Tell me your kids weren't on that plane, tell me your kids weren't on that plane." It's his panicked assistant calling from Perth. He tries to calm her down. "What are you talking about?"

"MH17, MH17," she cries. He looks up their booking and confirms the flight number.

Then he Googles.

He is confronted by images of a crash site with burning parts of an aircraft, strewn luggage and passengers' personal items spread over the fields.

It is the remains of MH17, and it appears to have been shot out of the sky.

While other family members of the 298 passengers and crew gathered earlier in the day at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to learn more about the disaster, Malaysian Airlines had not contacted the Maslins.

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As Maz falls to the floor, overwrought with pain, Rin comes downstairs to hear the horrifying news.

Their memories of that morning are jumbled: screaming in the street, a neighbour hanging a paper love heart in their window as a symbol of support, representatives of the Australian embassy arriving and gently closing the open windows.

Then another neighbour telling them to close their eyes and go to their children: "Tell them it's okay to go on."

Little citizens of the world

Even as children, the Maslins were experienced international travellers. By the age of five, Mo had 53 stamps in his passport; Evie had 31 by the time she was three.

They lived a big life. Rin had worked as a make-up artist in the London theatre scene and Maz built on his stockbroking career to become an investor in sustainability-focused start-ups.

When the kids were still small, they lived in a remote Muslim community in the Maldives while Maz established the world's first solar-powered water purification and bottling plant.

Rin and Maz wanted their kids to learn new perspectives and cultures.

"Our kids were citizens of the world," Maz says. "They were really open-minded and really welcoming to all people.

Evie was caring and compassionate and always tried to be kind.

"Not so much around her brothers necessarily, when she'd have them by the scruff of the neck," Rin says, laughing.

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Most nights she still wanted to sleep in the same room as her brothers. She was creative like her mother and loved art, dancing and cooking.

Mo had started Year 7. He was relaxed, inclusive and smart. A sporty kid, he loved the Fremantle Dockers.

"He had that nice cruisy, lackadaisical style, and just laid-back," Maz says. "Mo is proper cool. He is just someone who puts everyone around him at ease."

The baby of the family was Otis, the family "joy-bringer". A bundle of cheeky fun, he loved dancing, running and climbing trees in a whirl of energy.

"If climbing had been on the school curriculum, he would have been in the 99th percentile," Rin says. A boy who loved nature, his pockets were always filled with found objects and the flotsam of everyday life.

Filling the silence

Deeply in shock, Rin and Maz did not want to be alone when they arrived back from Amsterdam.

Their Scarborough home had always been a hive of activity; of parties and barbecues and kids running around, over and above the day-to-day whirl of raising three school-aged children.

They feared the silence.

Rin's best friend Rebecca Fiore-Leach set up a roster system with the myriad of friends and family desperate to help in any way they could — plentiful meals, laughs and tears.

In the evenings, people popped in and sat on their balcony with wine and cheese. They told stories of their children and honoured their lives.

The roster system went on for six months.

Getting through the day

In the early days, weeks and months of their grief, Rin and Maz felt just making it through the day was an achievement, amid their relentless horror and disbelief.

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"Life with three kids was so full," Rin says.

"We were always rushed. When the world ended … there's nothing to do. The feeling of that horror is just this, 'Oh, God, how do I get through this day?'"

Rin seized on just one moment of happiness in the day, maybe a bird singing or the sun on her face. She did yoga with a friend, just to breathe.

They felt the support of the Australian community. Two weeks after the tragedy, Mo's footy team, the Fremantle Dockers, paid tribute to the children before a home game as Rin and Maz stood in the middle of the silent stadium to release three giant balloons.

"All we were trying to do was honour our children," Maz says.

More than 1,000 people attended a service at Perth's Scotch College, where four generations of the Norris family once attended, including Nick and Mo.

"When their innocent bodies were shot out of the sky I stretched my arms as high as I could and screamed for them," Rin said, as she tried to articulate her loss to the crowd. "The love in my heart will always be open for them. My arms will always be reaching for them."

Rin's dad Nick Norris was celebrated as a man of the military, a sailor, and an excellent headmaster and educator.

He was remembered as "a marvellous energetic bloke" with a great sense of humour.

But Head of Middle School at Scotch College, Richard Ledger, says it was the resilience and strength of commitment to love over hate displayed by Rin and Maz that stunned the crowd.

"That is what the human spirit — the human soul — is capable of, what Rin and Maz demonstrated on that stage," he says.

Our children 'live in our hearts'

In the days following the shocking international incident, the Australian Government, led by then-foreign minister Julie Bishop, lobbied the United Nations for entry into the warzone to retrieve the bodies and collect evidence for an investigation.

Over three separate visits from the Australian Federal Police, the Maslins received the confirmation no-one wants: their children's and father's remains had been identified.

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"My children don't live in their bodies anymore, they live in our hearts," Maz says.

Three months after the incident, Maz and Rin and their families travelled to the Netherlands to bring home Nick and their children.

The Australian media clamoured for information from the Maslins and they issued a statement.

"No hate in the world is as strong as the love we have for our children, for Mo, for Evie, for Otis," Rin and Maz said.

"No hate in the world is as strong as the love we have for Granddad Nick.

"No hate in the world is as strong as the love we have for each other. This is a revelation that gives us some comfort."

Living in the moment

Rin and Maz are surviving. Months drag on. Every day they get out of bed and get ready and do something.

They recognise they have post-traumatic stress disorder and develop techniques to deal with it: predictable routines become vital, not too much coffee or alcohol, daily exercise and spending time at the beach.

They have discovered that staying in the present moment works well for grief and anxiety.

"It is your thoughts that make something bad, worrying about the future or fretting about the past," Rin says.

Just being aware of the small moments of joy and beauty brings solace. If they are having bad days they go back to basics, put on the slow cooker and allow themselves to retreat from life.

In the early months, they needed sympathy. But after a while the pity they see on people's faces starts to drain their spirit. Well-meaning strangers say, "I don't know how you get out of bed in the morning".

Although the Maslins recognise the intent, it feels to their grieving minds almost like an accusation:"You must be callous to get out of bed, you must be heartless to be able to make it through the day."

They would prefer people reframed that comment into a positive, and say, "It's amazing that you manage to get out of bed every morning".

"Because we do," Rin says. "Every single day, we get out of bed. And I am really proud of us for that."

The gift of new life

In 2016, the Maslin children sent their parents another gift.

Soon after their world ended, Rin and Maz considered having another baby but worried how a child might cope growing up in the shadow of the tragedy.

They both believed if the children wanted them to be parents again, it would happen.

Violet May Maslin was born on May 10, 2016, three days after Mo's 14th birthday and four days before Evie's 12th.

"I'll never forget holding her in my arms and feeling just a tiny little moment of peace that I hadn't felt for so long," Rin says.

"I think that the kids sent Violet to bring that to us."

Now aged three, Violet is joyful, strong and delightful, a mixture of all the kids, but definitely her own person.

Rin and Maz are back doing what they know how to do, being good parents and looking forward to Violet growing up brave and strong.

"I'm the father of four beautiful children, and that's a lucky guy in anyone's language," Maz says.

"You might not be able to see three of them, but that doesn't mean they're not here — they're right here," he says, pointing to his heart.

Healing through art

The Maslins have also found other ways to create new meaning in their lives.

One day Rin asked her children what she should do, and she sensed Mo whisper, "Mum, go to the Artspace".

The Artspace was a derelict apartment they had rented in Scarborough as a place for Rin to work.

Over the years she had worked in photography, collage, painting, sculpture and drawing. But crafting on the kitchen table was a drag when you had to pack up for dinner.

The children had loved the space and helped her start the renovations by painting. "I paid them seven bucks a wall," Rin laughs.

Rin opened The Artspace Collective toward the end of 2014 as a community hub that welcomed all, with exhibitions and workshops for adults and children.

The space has been a healing place, not just for Rin, but for many of their friends to get involved in something that brings life and joy to the community.

Back to nature

Maz walks the plains of the Western Australian Wheatbelt, inspecting a huge shade house filled with dozens of varieties of vegetables never grown before in the region.

This is the culmination of another passion project, Wide Open Agriculture, one he started at his lowest ebb looking for a reason to keep going and is now listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Maz saw an opportunity for regenerative farming and jobs growth in the massive Wheatbelt fanning out from Perth.

He and his team have come up with a farm-to-fork business model, partnering with farmers to produce sustainable and diverse agriculture in the region.

"Most of the Wheatbelt communities are dying," Maz says. "The people are leaving, the schools close [and] the environmental degradation is terrible.

"We want to build a new food and farming system.

"Wide Open Agriculture for me is just honouring the kids. I'm trying to live my life in a positive manner because it's the only choice that I have."

Five years on

Five years after the downing of MH17, a criminal investigation into the act of war remains ongoing by the Dutch Ministry of Justice, aided by Australian investigators in the field.

In 2015, the Dutch Safety Board found a Buk surface-to-air missile had exploded next to the plane at 33,000 feet.

The Joint Investigation Taskforce proved the Buk missile had belonged to the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

The pro-Russian separatists had planned to bring down a Ukrainian air force plane but made a terrible mistake and hit MH17 instead.

Russia has repeatedly refused to admit liability or pay compensation.

In May 2018, Australia and the Netherlands announced they held Russia responsible under international law.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne told Australian Story the Australian Government was committed to bringing those responsible to justice.

"In late March 2019, I met my Dutch counterpart Foreign Minister Blok in Sydney, where we reaffirmed our commitment to pursuing justice for the victims' family and loved ones," Ms Payne said in a statement.

More than $50 million has been set aside over four years to support the Dutch prosecution and help Australian next of kin with court proceedings.

Maz and Rin would like to see justice prevail for all of the 298 victims and their families, including the other 34 Australians and residents. But they choose not to focus on hate and resentment.

"I don't feel anger towards the people who fired the rocket," Maz says.

"I feel something much worse, I feel pity towards them. They have to live the rest of their lives knowing that they've killed 298 people, including a phenomenal man and three of the most beautiful children to ever walk the earth."

Rin says she would not want to meet Putin, but if she did: "I would need to find it in my heart to forgive him," she says.

At the local neighbourhood park, a rainbow mural is a beautiful memorial featuring each of the children surfing, riding and skating.

The names Mo, Evie and Otis are carved into a grand old tree, while down near Scarborough beach, their hand-drawn artworks are etched into the concrete of the playground.

A world away in Europe, nine Australian investigators are still trying to bring those who downed MH17 to justice.

Maz says when the world ended it was hell on earth, but now there is some light.

"There's so much that's good and positive," he says. "You focus on those bits and you just push all the other shit away."

Rin is concentrating on the love.

"The love that I have for my kids — there's nothing more powerful than that," she says.

"Tragedy can teach you things that you never wanted to learn, but you learn."

Watch Australian Story's After the World Ended, 8:00pm ABCTV and iview or YouTube.


Reporter: Vanessa Gorman

Feature writer: Rosanne Barrett

Digital producer: Megan Mackander

Photography/video: Marcus Alborn, Marc Smith, Vanessa Gorman, Reuters, Getty Images, Maslin family

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