MH370 confusion too brutal for even hardened Chinese

A woman breaks down as she and other relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 leave the lounge after getting no new information in Beijing on March 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A woman breaks down as she and other relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 leave the lounge after getting no new information in Beijing on March 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

I had been in Beijing for all of 11 days, still living out of a suitcase in a hotel room, when I found myself in the emotional epicentre of possibly the worst aviation disaster to ever hit China.

On Saturday, March 8, a Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 people on board, 153 of them Chinese nationals, disappeared.

On Sunday, March 9, I went to where their loved ones and family members, hundreds of them spilling into Beijing from all over northern China, were gathered.

I've stayed with them at the Metropark Lido hotel in Beijing since, day by day, through the twists and turns of a mystery that still isn't solved.

They are cooped up in a ballroom, with a huge media pack waiting outside 24/7. Flashes blind them every time they leave for or return from meals at the hotel's restaurant.

I was one of the few journalists who found a way to be in the ballroom with the family members over the past week.

It has felt a lot longer than six days.

The most cruel thing is, they haven't been allowed the relief of grief. They still don't know if the passengers are alive, and most remain hopeful that they are.

The moments of intense emotion have been few and far between, considering the scale of the disaster. There is no mourning. The dominant mood has instead been a frustrated, incredulous, furious hunger for information - a straight answer.

The uncertainty has only been compounded by dribs and drabs of contradictory news that they get from official sources.

Was it up to five stolen passports, or two? Are they terrorists, or not? Does the Malaysian military have information it's not sharing? Did the plane turn back on its flight path? Why are the phones ringing if the plane is in the sea?

These questions don't arise from watching the TV news, or reading wild speculation on Weibo, China's Twitter. They are direct products of the daily briefings the families have with high-level officials, which have only made things worse.

The families have no straight answers to all these questions, repeatedly posed to Chinese, Malaysian and MAS officials over the last few days.

The one answer they really want is about the phones and the social media status of some passengers, which still blinked "online" after the disappearance.

The family members are obsessed with these two pieces of evidence, which, to them, point to the fact that the plane is on land and not in the sea.

On Monday, Chinese officials told them that people with real technological expertise had to look at this and explain it. But it has been six days, and no one has given them an answer from someone with real, technological expertise.

They know there's a high chance that it's just a telecommunications fake-out - numbers redirected elsewhere, social media accounts still logged in on different computers. But they just want to know for sure. They just want to know something for sure.

I haven't been in China long, but it's obvious to me that many of them, especially the older ones who come from rural areas, are no strangers to the Chinese concept of "eating bitterness" - "chi ku."

But such sustained uncertainty over a matter of life-and-death is a trial beyond physical discomfort, beyond heartbreak.

Over the last few days, being with them in the same set of rooms, my emotions have risen and fallen with theirs, although I have no right to claim any of their pain, and no real knowledge of its depth.

I cycle through anger, incredulity, frustration, and then back to anger again, especially during those useless briefings with officials.

But one thing that I can escape, that they can't, is that insidious hope.

It has been almost 140 hours since MH370 disappeared. If it was a hijacking, it almost certainly went awry.

The chances of any of the passengers being alive, it is clear to any observer, are close to nil. Miracles do happen, but not really, not like this. The best we can hope for at the end of this ordeal is a clear explanation of how the plane disappeared, and how to prevent what happened from ever happening again.

I know this. Few outside of that set of hotel rooms thinks that the passengers are alive.

But this small bit of clarity is not a luxury - and it would be a luxury, at this point - that their loved ones and family can allow themselves to have.

They cannot leave their hope behind, no matter how many days go by. They carry it with them, a brutal burden, and wait.

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