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Two days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, the road near the village of Grabovo, where the aircraft crashed, is still lined with bodies.
Rescue workers carry the body of a passenger killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday. Anastasia Vlasova/EPA
Rescue workers, most of them of unknown provenance, are slowly moving corpses from where they hit the ground and piling them on the side of the road. The victims are then covered with black tarpaulins. Beside them, the belongings of the dead passengers have been piled in heaps: dozens of suitcases, rucksacks, a red summer hat, a broken laptop and a stuffed toy monkey. After each foray into the fields, workers clean their shoes with sticks because the ground is sodden from persistent rain.
What will happen to the bodies now, to the sons, daughters, siblings, husbands and wives of grieving relatives around the world? No one really seems to know.
At Grabovo, the scene is one of utter confusion. Men in masks arrive and depart in fleets of cars, including one painted with the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag, supposedly from the government emergencies ministry. All the men hold guns.
“You are now at the place where the warfare is going on, so people with weapons shouldn’t embarrass you,” said the rebel commander, who gave his nom de guerre as Grumpy. He added that the corpses would probably be carried to the mortuaries at Snezhnoe or Donetsk, but he didn’t know for sure.
There have been Ukrainian claims that several bodies went missing during the night. While most of the corpses have been covered with tarpaulins, some body parts were shovelled into sacks. The smell at the site, as the heat of the Ukrainian summer takes its toll, is becoming unbearable.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry has said it will bring the bodies to the eastern city of Kharkiv for autopsies, and has promised to set up information centres and provide free accommodation for relatives. But in the chaos of the crash site, this seems an unlikely scenario: there is no sign that the broad access promised by the rebels to the crash site is actually being granted.
A spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that his team had “evolving access” to the site on Saturday.
DNR gunmen stop @OSCE on road to site of flight #MH17. Finally let them out, “but only on the road, not the field.”
When I first arrived on Saturday, two men in military fatigues at the roadside, armed with Kalashnikovs, were blocking access to the crash site itself. “The experts and investigators of the prosecutor general are now working there,” I was told by one.
The international community is unlikely to be impressed by these endeavours, or by an investigation that is being carried out by the “prosecutor general” of the People’s Republic of Donetsk – the quasi-statelet that has existed here only since referendums earlier this year.
Indeed, many suspect the rebels of engaging in a cover-up to hide their own involvement in the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines flight.
On Friday, the OSCE team was barred from the site, and on Saturday the international monitoring mission, which arrived again in a convoy of white cars, was initially turned back by Grumpy and his men.
“Two-thirds of the OSCE observers work for intelligence of European countries or the US,” he claimed, repeating his distrust for all western monitors – a constant rebel refrain throughout the conflict in east Ukraine. Two sets of OSCE monitors have been kidnapped and held hostage at various points over the past few months by rebels.
However, after brief negotiations and a nervy standoff, the observers were allowed in to see the crash site. Together with journalists, they were permitted to walk along the road but were warned – by dozens of armed people who were tracking them from the nearby fields –not to leave the tarmac.
Several bodies, badly disfigured and still uncovered, lay across their path. According to Aleksey Megrin, the leader of the rescue workers, around 190 bodies had already been picked up by his men. “We are finding bodies and bringing them to the place where rebels tell us to bring them,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of police are working here: Ukrainian or Russian.”
Several times, rebels shot into the air to warn journalists who were getting too near to the bodies lying around them. On Friday the rebels had also fired warning shots at the OSCE team to prevent them from getting too close to the wreckage.
Despite reports of looting, fighters and local people say they have been doing their best to collect evidence and preserve the human remains.
One local resident, Aleksandr Mytyshchenko, whose house lies close to the disaster scene, said that he and his wife had initially thought that the downed plane was swooping low to drop bombs on them. Then came the blast, which embedded pieces of plane into the walls of his house.
Mytyshchenko pulled them out and dumped them next to the side of the road. “The smell was just horrible. I couldn’t bear it,” he added.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said rebels were now taking away all evidence of the disaster that had been gathered by emergency workers. “They [emergency workers] are working under an armed threat,” he said.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian government accused the rebels of deliberately removing corpses from the site and destroying the evidence.
“Terrorists brought 38 bodies to the mortuary in Donetsk,” the government statement read, adding that it was presumed that Russian experts would perform the autopsies there. “The terrorists are seeking out heavy load trucks to carry the plane wreckage to Russia,” the government added.
Grumpy neither denied nor confirmed the claims that some bodies had been moved to Donetsk. “Maybe they did it, maybe not,” he said. “I personally didn’t do that.”
The national security and defence council said emergencies ministry staff had checked roughly seven square miles around the crash site. But the workers had not been free to conduct a normal investigation, it added. “The fighters have let the emergencies ministry workers in there but are not allowing them to take anything from the area,” Lysenko said. “The fighters are taking away all that has been found.”
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, forensic teams have begun collecting material, including DNA samples from relatives, photographs of victims and details of any distinguishing features, to help them identify the remains.
Malaysia Airlines said 193 of the 298 passengers and crew killed in Thursday’s aviation disaster were Dutch, 43 were Malaysian, 27 from Australia, 12 from Indonesia, 10 from the UK, four each from Germany and Belgium, three from the Philippines, and one each from Canada and New Zealand.
The airline said it was assessing the security situation in Ukraine before taking any decision about flying next of kin to the country.
A spokesman said that family members were being cared for in Amsterdam, while a team from Malaysia Airlines, including security officials, has flown to Ukraine.
What we know so far
A posting on an account linked to a pro-Russia separatist leader in Ukraine, on a Russian social network site, claims that militants shot down at least one Ukrainian military plane near the Donetsk region town of Torez. The post has been deleted.
Paul Sonne @PaulSonne Follow
Much of the debris on the #MH17 crash site has already been moved. Some items found whole, for example, piled here. 9:20 AM – 19 Jul 2014
Ukrainian government adviser Anton Herashchenko claims the plane was hit by a missile fired by a Buk SA-11 launcher, a Russian-made, surface-to-air missile system. Photographs of such a launcher in the town of Snezhne, near the crash site, appear on the internet. Later, photographs of a Buk being moved on a transporter from Ukraine to Russia appear.
Ukrainian authorities release a recording they claim is a conversation between pro-Russia militants admitting to shooting down the plane. A rebel fighter going by the nom de guerre of “Major” is heard telling another comrade called “Grek” that a group of fighters had brought the airliner down. “The plane broke up in the air, near the Petropavlovskaya mines. The first [casualty] has been found. It was a woman. A civilian,” he says. At 5.42pm, “Major” acknowledges the plane was civilian: “Hell. It’s almost 100% certain that it’s a civilian plane.”
In another recording, a Russian officer called Igor Bezler is apparently heard reporting on the downing of the jet to his superior in Russian military intelligence, Colonel Vasily Geranin: “A plane has just been shot down … They’ve gone to search and photograph the plane. It is smoking.”
In a third conversation, a rebel fighter says: “It turned out to be a passenger plane. It fell in Hrabove area. There’s a sea of women and children …”
Satellite images show a plume of smoke left by a ground-to-air missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines flight 17. The images help to compile an intelligence analysis shared with the UN security council by the US ambassador Samantha Power, which she claimed showed the airliner was “likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine”. The location of the missile launch appears crucial.
“It strains credulity to think [the missile] could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.