Flight MH17, two years on: ‘As far as I’m concerned, Putin killed my son’

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In 2014, young Richard Mayne was one of 298 people killed over rebel-held eastern Ukraine when a missile blew their plane out of the sky. On the eve of the second anniversary, his family have no doubt where the blame really lies

On 17 July 2014, Richard Mayne was upstairs in his bedroom, stuffing clothes into a suitcase. It was 1am. A few hours later, he was due to set off on a trip around the world. Aged 20, Richard was a second-year student at Leeds University.

He was studying maths and finance. His year abroad was to be spent in the agreeable, scorching surroundings of the University of Western Australia in Perth. Richard was sporty, charismatic, a talented rugby player. And the witty mid-point of a social situation.

He was a lousy packer, though. He wasnt very organised. Its almost as if he didnt want to go, his mum Liz says. Australia was going to be hot and hed packed a tuxedo. He bought himself a new surf suit. His rugby boots went on top. He was going to rugby training straight from the plane.

At 4am, Liz drove Richard from their home in Leicester to Birmingham airport. From there he was catching an early flight to Amsterdam and a long-haul connection on to Kuala Lumpur. At check-in, Liz says she had a bit of an argument with her son, who insisted on taking his laptop with him for the flight rather than his insulin. He had type 1 diabetes.

Liz watched her son vanish through the barrier. He just turned back and waved as he went through. A cheeky wave, she recalls. He wanted to go. He was eagerly anticipating this new, exciting adventure. I told him: Make sure you wear your sweatshirt, because of the air-conditioning.

Later, the family celebrated in a local cafe; it was the 19th birthday of Richards younger brother, Will. When they got home around 5pm, Will browsed Twitter. There was news. It was ominous. A civilian jet was reported to have crashed.

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Flowers left by parents of an Australian victim of the crash, laid on a piece of the wreckage. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

It had come down in eastern Ukraine, the scene of a violent three-month war between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow. That April, Vladimir Putin had annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. He had also begun a covert military invasion of eastern Ukraine. It started in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, spreading into the gritty surrounding mining towns and countryside.

The crashed plane appeared to be Richards. It was Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. We switched on the TV. It said plane shot down. I just knew there was no way he is going to survive that, Will says. At that point, he adds, there was little information and much confusion. The UK government was seemingly unaware that British citizens were on board.

The next few hours were numbing as the reality sank in: Richard wasnt coming back from his year-long trip. Malaysian Airlines called in the late evening to inform them it was 100% certain he had got on the plane at Amsterdam. The phone rang; Richards aunt came round. At 5am, two police officers arrived. Liz told them: I know why you are here.

Richard was one of 298 people on board the Boeing 777. It had been flying at 32,000 feet. Two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch; the others came from Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the UK, Germany, Belgium, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand. There were 10 Britons and 15 Malaysian crew. None survived.

The plane had been brought down by a missile, fired from a Buk surface-to-air launcher parked in a field near the village of Snizhne. It had been smuggled across the border from Russia. Evidence now in the hands of Dutch prosecutors suggests it had come from the Kremlins 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in the Russian city of Kursk.

In the previous week, the Russian defence ministry had provided the rebels with an array of heavy weaponry: tanks, artillery pieces and mortars. Plus undercover soldiers disguised as volunteers. The Buk arrived after Ukrainian war planes started bombing rebel positions and government troops were taking back territory. Suddenly, Ukrainian military aircraft were being blown from the sky.

The Buks crew appear to have fired on MH17 by mistake. At 5.50pm Moscow time, their leader Igor Strelkov, a veteran Russian intelligence officer, tweeted that his men had shot down another Ukrainian transport or bird, as he put it. The rebels soon discovered their error. Wreckage, body parts and burning debris were strewn over a 50 sq km area. The corpses of women and children lay around.

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Elizabeth Mayne with her son Will: Richard was the brightest of stars. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Richards family nickname was Hercules. A snap, taken by Liz the previous week at a rugby match, shows off his impressively muscular physique. According to Liz, Richard had a strong sense of justice, and would defend friends from harm. And yet, in his final moments, Richard was helpless. I was angry that he wasnt able to defend himself, she says.

Her son was one of only six MH17 victims whose bodies were brought back from the chaotic crash site intact. You wouldnt have thought hed fallen 32,000 feet, she says. I have a theory he got out of his seat. His body was returned in the clothes he had set off in: sweatshirt, and socks bearing the logo of his favourite rugby team, the Leicester Tigers. There was his iPhone 4. He hadnt sent a text message: Dutch investigators concluded the passengers had died instantly.

Once Richards body came home, they had to scan it for shrapnel. It was horror. He wasnt a solider, Liz says. The body came with a Ukrainian death certificate, which left her feeling dreadfully upset.

Amid their grief, the Maynes came to a grim conclusion: Richard had been murdered. The man whom they believe murdered him is Vladimir Putin. It was Putin, they believe, who gave orders for the Russian military to cross the border, setting in train a series of consequences, including the shooting down of MH17 and 10,000 dead in the conflict.

Certainly, Russia has done everything it can to cover up the crime. The Kremlin used its UN security council veto to stop an international investigation similar to that carried out following the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing. Moscows denial follows a familiar pattern, Will Mayne says. In 1983, the Soviet Union lied about shooting down a Korean jet, only to later admit it.

Russian state TV channels, meanwhile, have broadcast numerous conspiracy theories: the Ukrainians shot down MH17, mistaking it for Putins jet; it was already full of dead bodies; the US was to blame. They have rubbished the work of the journalist Eliot Higgins, whose team tracked down photos posted on social media by Russian soldiers who travelled with the Buk convoy.

Will graduated this summer from the University of East Anglia with a degree in international relations. He got a first. He wrote his dissertation on MH17. He says he will fight for justice for his murdered brother, however long it takes. Im estimating Putin will go on for another quarter of a century, he says. I have youth on my side.

Last October, a Dutch safety board report confirmed that a Buk missile launched from rebel-controlled territory hit MH17, exploding less than a metre from the cockpit and killing the three pilots instantly. The planes front section was re-assembled in a hangar at a Dutch airbase. The doomed Boeing came back in ghostly form.

Ideally, Will suggests, Putin would stand trial at the international criminal court in The Hague. A Dutch criminal report is due later this year. It may identify the Buks Russian crew, but is unlikely to point the finger directly at Russias president.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin: ideally, says Will Mayne, he should stand trial. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

In the meantime, Will a massive football fan and Leicester City supporter says he wont watch a single minute of the 2018 World Cup, to be hosted by Russia. He is calling for a boycott, a proposal originally made by Nick Clegg. Its wrong to hold the tournament in a dictatorship. They lock up political prisoners. They murder dissidents on foreign soil. They crack down on LGBT rights. They lie and cover up. Why not hold the next World Cup in Pyongyang? he says caustically, adding: Putin will be parading at the opening like he did at the Sochi [winter Olympic] games.

Liz and her husband Simon have three surviving children: Tom, Will and Francesca. The impact of Richards death has been devastating for them. Richard was the brightest of stars, the funniest and wittiest person we know. Our life is extremely dull without him, they say.

Before MH17 the Maynes had only positive experiences of Russia. Liz, who teaches English at a sixth-form college, took a group of students to Soviet Moscow just after the 1980 summer Olympics. As an undergraduate, she read Tolstoy. Her favourite novel is Anna Karenina. Simon was teaching himself conversational Russian, something he abandoned.

Two weeks after Richards death, the family met with David Cameron in Downing Street. They understand, however, that obtaining justice will be a long and tough struggle. There is scant international appetite to confront Moscow, despite Australian PM Tony Abbott saying in 2014 he would shirt-front Putin over the downing of MH17, in which 38 Australian citizens and residents perished.

Theresa May the new prime minister, but then home secretary initially refused to hold an inquiry into the 2006 polonium murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another case characterised by brazen Moscow lies and obstruction. May only agreed after MH17 was shot down. Liz has met and had lunch with Litvinenkos widow, Marina. As far as Im concerned, Putin killed her husband and my son, she says.

There are various legal options. One would be for the UK or the Netherlands to sue Russia in the international court of justice. Last month, the Maynes received compensation from Malaysian Airlines. Relatives have also filed a suit in the US against Igor Strelkov. The former rebel leader is now back in Moscow, and turning his fire on Putin.

But the chances of prosecuting anybody are slim. Aviation lawyer James Healey-Pratt, who is acting for the Maynes and other families, says: One of the frustrations here is there is real nagging doubt that truth and justice will happen. You are dealing with a country that doesnt play by the rules. He points out that, funnily enough, the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi did play by the rules, even shelling out $2.6bn in blood money to the relatives of those killed in the Lockerbie crash. Its hard to imagine Putin doing the same.

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A paper plane left outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow on last years first anniversary of the shooting down of MH17. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Over the past two years, the Maynes have got to know the relatives of some of the other victims. They are friendly with the parents of Ben Pocock, a 20-year-old student from Bristol who, like Richard, was on his way to university in Perth when he was blown up. They have also set up a fund in Richards name to raise money for diabetes research.

I dont think I have started yet to grieve, Liz tells me, when we meet with Will in London. She says she wasnt able to connect with her surviving children for some time. She writes poems. She likes to imagine that Richard landed in a field of sunflowers. An Australian journalist who went to the crash site sent her some sunflower seeds; Liz has since grown and nurtured them.

The 17 July is the second anniversary of Richards death and Wills 21st birthday. The Maynes will remember their mischievous son whose life was snuffed out before it really got started. They are planning to hold a bigger memorial on 8 September Richards birthday.

We will light a bonfire in the garden, Liz says. Richard loved bonfires.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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