On 18 July 2014, Nigel Stanier boarded a plane to Ukraine. It was less than 24 hours after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, flying between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, was shot down near Torez at Donetsk Oblast. 298 people were killed including 38 Australian residents and citizens. Once in Ukraine, he took an overnight train to Kharkiv, a city in the northeast of the country.
A career DFAT officer who had previous postings to Germany and Turkey under his belt––as well as a short stint in the Philippines following Cyclone Haiyan––Nigel was deployed as part of DFAT’s specialist Crisis Response Team.
You’re performing a service for someone who is probably at the most difficult time in their life.
Over the following week, he worked under incredible pressure as part of the Dutch-led international team, to return the bodies of the people who had died back to their home countries. As one of the first Australian officials at the scene, he recalls the response as large, complex and emotionally challenging. ‘We had no embassy at that time in Ukraine, the plane was shot down effectively over a war zone, so we had to negotiate with the rebels who were holding the bodies.’
Thoughts of the people affected by the disaster kept Nigel and those he was working with going. ‘All these people had loved ones who couldn’t conceive of such a tragedy’, Nigel says. ‘It was very difficult for us in the field…but whenever I felt tired, whenever I felt worried, I would try to imagine what it was like if my children had been shot down. And you can’t imagine that, but I think it would bring me a little relief to know there was…a team of people like me, out there doing their best to find the bodies and bring them back home.’
At the end of the week in Kharkiv, Nigel packed up the office and headed back to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, to work on the next stage of the process, negotiating to ensure the Australian Federal Police were allowed access to the crash site for further investigations. Nigel was awarded a Humanitarian Overseas Medal in recognition of his contribution in Ukraine.
Australia is committed to responding rapidly and generously to international crises. Like other crisis response officers, Nigel has a day job at DFAT but continues to offer his services in times of crisis. In 2015, he flew to Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam, and in 2016, travelled to Fiji following Cyclone Winston. Nigel’s time in Ukraine has stayed with him. ‘I would say of all the things I have done in my career in [the Department of] Foreign Affairs and Trade it was the thing that made the most difference. You’re performing a service for someone who is probably at the most difficult time in their life.’