MH370: the unbearable pain of waiting

'He shouldn't have been on that flight. It's not fair.'

Construction worker on overdue break flew from KL instead of S'pore to save money

Two Saturdays ago, Madam Nan Kaifen, 40, waited at a Jining train station for her husband, a construction worker who was returning home from Singapore for the first time in over a year.

He was supposed to have arrived in Beijing early that morning, taken a nine-hour train ride to their hometown in Shandong province, and arrived in time for dinner with their two children, aged eight and 14.

Mr Liu Qiang, 40, never showed up. "I waited all night, and now I'm still waiting," Madam Nan, a small woman with a rough voice and bloodshot eyes, says.

Her husband was one of 153 Chinese passengers on Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370, still missing in what has become the biggest aviation mystery in modern history.

It was carrying 239 people, including an all-Malaysian crew, and lost contact with air traffic control 50 minutes after take-off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8.

The next day, Madam Nan hurried to Beijing with five family members - her husband's 70-year-old father and three siblings and her sister - after watching the news and confirming with her husband's company that he was on the flight.

She has been cooped up in the Beijing Metropark Lido hotel ever since, with more than 400 other relatives of passengers. All of them have been on an emotional roller coaster as dribs and drabs of information emerged each day about the jetliner that vanished.

Madam Nan started off hopeful, especially since there was a ringtone when she dialled her husband's mobile number repeatedly on Day 1 of her ordeal.

As days passed with no news, she began to expect the worst. On Day 5, she told The Sunday Times: "I don't know what I will do, and I am still hopeful. But it has been so long, and I must be prepared in my heart."

Then the Malaysian government revealed last Saturday - on Day 7 - that the plane had changed course and had remained flying until at least 8am the next day.

Like most of the other family members here, Madam Nan's hopes rose with the news, and they became convinced that Kuala Lumpur was negotiating with terrorists for the safe return of the passengers who were being held hostage somewhere.

"It was very hard not to know anything for so long, but as long as my husband comes home safe, that's OK," she said that day.

But the days continued to pass, and the Malaysian government made it clear it had not received any ransom demands.

Madam Nan began to despair again, and last Wednesday, Day 11, she joined some other families in starting a hunger strike. "It's to protest," she said then. "It's to show how upset we are and get them to return us our loved ones."

She abandoned the strike after a day, persuaded by family members not to hurt herself.

But she barely eats, and has only some porridge or soup at the hotel restaurant at mealtimes.

What she loved the most about her husband - his thriftiness and his dedication to providing for his family - she now hates, because those qualities put him in this predicament, she says.

Mr Liu usually came home like other workers once a year during the Chinese New Year. But this year, after four years in Singapore, he stayed back to work and earn extra in overtime pay.

For his overdue two-week break at home this month, Mr Liu chose to take the bus to KL and then an MAS flight to Beijing because it was cheaper than a direct flight from Singapore to Beijing. "He shouldn't have been on that flight," she says. "It's not fair."

Mr Liu's father says that their house in Shandong was renovated last year, thanks to his wages earned in Singapore. "He must come back to stay in this new house that he built," he said.

Asked on Day 12 how she passes her days, Madam Nan says: "Just waiting for news."

Asked if she still believes the passengers are alive, she says only: "I have hope."

Over the past two weeks, she has become less and less communicative, saying little to family members around her during mealtimes.

She has also not spoken much to her two children at home, not trusting herself to remain calm on the phone.

"All I have said to them is that their father is still in Malaysia and we are waiting for him to come home."

rchang@sph.com.sg