At last, after weeks of frustration for investigators and emotional pain for families and friends of the 298 passengers and crew lost in the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the wheat and sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine on Friday took on the appearance of an orderly, professional search for human remains and personal belongings.
After a minute of silence, Australian Federal Police and their Dutch colleagues mapped the site as a grid and started the process of fanning out to search for the remains of as many as 80 victims whose remains are believed to be still strewn on a 50 sq/km swathe of country that has is locked in an intensifying separatist war.
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MH17 investigators start at crash site
International experts begin recovery work at MH17’s crash site in eastern Ukraine, despite ongoing clashes in the area between government forces and pro-Russian rebels.
It was later confirmed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe that several human remains and passengers' belongings were recovered.
The deputy head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, Alexander Hug, was unable to say how many passengers' remains were found.
Mr Hug said he hoped a train carrying the victim's belongings would be able to move tonight or tomorrow and deliver them to Kharkiv, from where they would be sent to the Netherlands for identification.
At the site, Grad missiles and other munitions threw up huge clouds of smoke in the near distance, but, by Friday morning, it seemed international criticism had finally cowed rebel forces and those of the Ukrainian government to allow the search get under way unhindered.
Dozens of Australian and Dutch police who for a week had been blocked from going to the site by the fighting, set up a site headquarters in a chicken farm on the outskirts of Grabovka village, before fanning out across the fields – wearing plastic gloves, carrying maps and, in some cases, blue buckets.
OSCE conflict monitors, who escort the Australian investigators, said that security and relations with the rebel fighters were good near the chicken farm.
But Mr Hug reported that incoming artillery had driven a small investigative team, which included two Australians, away from an area of wreckage near the area of the crash site known as the cockpit village.
He estimated that the ordinanace had landed two kilometres from the team.
Aleksandr Bayrak, one of the team’s rebel escorts, gave a more graphic account of the incident.
The team had just entered the village of Petropavlovska when shells started landing as close as 50 metres.
In the shade of a tree on the road into the chicken farm, he said: ‘‘We stopped on the spot. We pulled them from the car and escorted them to a local basement.
‘‘We were pinned down for maybe 40 minutes. Some of them were so worried, they were holding their heads.
Then they asked us to take them to the chicken farm.’’
About 3pm, Mr Hug was poring over maps, spread on the bonnet of a car, with his rebel counterparts.
With the rumble of incoming shelling rolling in from nearby Petropavlovska, he needed to establish a secure route to extract the investigators back to their new cave at Soledar, 95 kilometres north of the chicken farm.
Huge plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the the village, about five kilometres to the north.
Fairfax Media's local driver wandered into a wheat field and reported seeing a man's diving watch lying in the dirt - the second hand still turning.
Dogs trained to help in searching for human remains are expected to join the search as early as Saturday.
Australia, the US and other Western governments blame Moscow-backed rebels for firing the missile that caused the crash. Russia and the separatists who have set up a breakaway republic claim that Ukrainian forces were the culprits.
The development coincided with the release in Kiev of a map that Ukrainian forces say confirms the success of the Ukrainian national army and its paramilitary supporters of encircling the separatist stronghold Donetsk.
The Australians and Dutch moved from Donetsk on Friday morning – as much to have easier access to the site from their new base at Soledar, about 95 kilometres north of the site, as to remove them from a city that is expected to come under a sustained Ukrainian attack in the coming days or weeks.
As the bodies of 10 Ukrainian soldiers were recovered from the scene of a nearby separatist ambush, Australian Federal Police mission chief Brian McDonald confirmed amid the relative peace of the crash site that it had now been formally declared to be a crime scene on which inspecting the wreckage of the Malaysia Airways Boeing 777 would be a crucial task.
“It’s not landing here, so it’s OK,” Commander McDonald said of ongoing tank fire. “We’ve got a job to do, so we will get on with it.”
His Dutch counterpart, police chief Cornelis Kuijs, said in a statement: “We, in the joint operation to salvage all the human remains here and bring them back to their families, are very happy we finally touched ground and can send our guys to work.
“Professionally, we have an interesting, challenging job, being done in a very polite, respectful way.”
Shifting the entire investigative team to Soledar was a sensible response to the nearly impossible logistics of a site visit by just two of the Australians on Thursday, more than 11 hours on the road, with all the insecurity of a war zone for just 85 minutes on the ground.
That tentative visit was an emotional salve to the investigators’ frustration at not being able to get there all week. But it also underscored the near impossibility of the investigators being able to work in a war zone.
Canberra and the other capitals involved in this tragedy should be working on shaming Kiev into reinstating, and observing, the 40-kilometre combat exclusion zone it initially proposed around the site.
Moving house reduced the size of the Australian Federal Police team that was dispatched to the crash site on Friday.
On Thursday, Commander McDonald suggested that as many as 60 might attend on Friday, but an initial morning foray included 38.
The 15-vehicle Australian-Dutch convoy arrived at the MH17 crash site shortly before noon – and remained till after 4pm. Mostly 4WDs, it also included a bus filled with Australian Federal Police officers and an ambulance.
Rebel gunmen were at the scene in hot and windy conditions, but in contrast to the intense fighting across the district on Thursday, the investigators were greeted by an occasional sound that is strange in these parts – at times they could hear the silence of no combat.
On arriving at the Garbovka section of the crash site, where big sections of the mid and rear fuselage landed and less than 500 metres from where the engines created an inferno, the team quickly established its site HQ and by 1.30pm, the ground search was under way.
In a haphazard initial search in the days after the crash rebels and later Ukrainian emergency services collected bodies and possessions.
A refrigerated train delivered the remains of about 200 victims to the northern city of Kharkiv – but it is understood that they have positioned a train at the nearby rail head, Torez, in which they have stored an unknown quantity of human remains, in a refrigerated wagon, and some of the passengers’ personal belongings.
It’s 10am local and the site is silent. The investigators’ convoy is still trundling through checkpoints north of the site; and for now, the rebel guns are silent, probably as they contemplate the usefulness of expending resources here when the Ukrainian military is boasting that it now is in a position to start seriously tightening the noose it has been applying to Donetsk, the nearby seat of separatist power.
The site is at peace. A farmer herds cattle and a light breeze wobbles the rain and sunflower crops. You dare to think about what’s out in the fields, about the emotional weight of "bring ‘em home" and the possibility that an orderly search by "our" people might give some comfort to the grieving families and friends of the 298 victims in the MH17 crash.
It doesn’t last for long. At 10.30am, just as the investigators’ convoy arrives, so does the sound of war – tank shells exploding smokily behind a nearby tree-line; and overhead, the sound of a Ukrainian fighter jet.
This is Day 2 of the Dutch-Australian search of the site. The Australian Federal Police say that there will be a smaller turn, maybe 40 officers, out than on Friday when they had their first unfettered access to the site.
The search on Saturday was to resume in the area closest to the chicken farm, where the rear fuselage and other smaller sections of MH17 impacted. It was then expected to move about 600m over a hill and down the road, to where the engines smashed to earth.
Late morning the first body-search dog went to work in an area adjacent to the chicken farm. Later, an ambulance moved into the same area. At noon, a local priest led a procession of about 50, mostly women in a prayer service next to the charred remains of the engines of MH17.
Clutching flowers and with heads covered, they gathered by a roadside crucifix where the robed priest led prayers and hymns for the dead passengers and crew.
The priest, Father Sergiy Barahtenko, told Fairfax Media that the service was for "all the dead - our dead and your dead". Showing rare courage for a spiritual leader, he exhorted his followers: "this war is awful - it must be stopped. But we cannot take up arms, we have to stop it with prayers."
Strangely, almost the entire investigative team has remained indoors, at the chicken farm. On the road next to a big section of the rear fuselage, there is what might be human remains.
Fairfax Media's local driver wanders into a wheat field and reports seeing a man's diving watch lying in the dirt - the second hand still turning.
- with AAP