MH17: gunmen hamper access to site
International observers say separatists in eastern Ukraine stopped them observing the site where the Malaysian airliner crashed, killing almost 300 people from 11 countries.PT0M0S 620 349
Kiev: The recovery of the bodies of the travellers that fell from the sky over eastern Ukraine should be ordered, respectful and expert.
But it isn’t. It has become an invasion of body snatchers and a duel over possession of the dead.
'Commander Grumpy' is said to be in charge of the chaotic crash site. Photo: Reuters
It should be a seamless operation where forensic examination of clues as to MH17’s fate leads swiftly to identification and return of remains to the deceased’s grieving family.
But reports from the crash site describe a farce, a scene run by a man who has dubbed himself ‘Commander Grumpy’ and acted out by amateurs under a veil of secrecy, confusion and denial, while international observers look helplessly on.
The masked gunmen controlling the site told a Buzzfeed journalist, Christopher Miller, they were under the command of the DPR’s general prosecutor, Ramil Halikiv.
The treatment of the bodies of the victims is under question. Photo: Reuters
The rebel commander who said he was in charge of guarding the crash site identified himself to Miller as Commander Grumpy –- “because I get grumpy when I spend too much time away from destroying Ukrainian BMPs [armored fighting vehicles] and tanks. You don’t want to see me grumpy”.
'Commander Grumpy' told the journalist he did not know where the bodies would be taken.
“Maybe they will go here, maybe there,” he said.
People search a field in eastern Ukraine for victims of flight MH17. Photo: AFP
Relatives of the MH17’s fallen are expected to start arriving in Ukraine over the next few days to take their loved ones home - but it seems they may at first find only delay and frustration here.
MH17 fell into the middle of a civil war, almost certainly because of it.
The plane’s wreckage and contents, including passengers, lie scattered over tens of square kilometres of fields and villages under the control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – pro-Russian separatists that Ukraine claims are under the influence of - and armed and supported by - Russia.
Tributes around the world for victims of MH17 disaster
Tributes, memorials and vigil's are being held all around the world following the deaths of passengers aboard Flight MH17 which crashed in Ukraine earlier this week. Photo: AFP
The bodies, some whole, some not, some burned, some apparently looted for their belongings, have spent more than two days in the humid warmth of eastern Ukraine.
On Friday night, Ukraine claims, the separatists moved in to do what they had prevented others from doing: recovering bodies.
The Ukraine government said 38 of the bodies of the victims had been picked up and taken to a morgue in Donetsk city, where Russian-accented experts would perform autopsies.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, accused the rebels of trying to hide evidence inside the remains that could incriminate them in the attack on the plane.
"According to the information we have that was done in order to find in the bodies of victims parts of missile which shot down the plane," he said.
On Saturday, international journalists tried to establish what was going on at the Donetsk morgue.
Al Jazeera journalist Nazanine Moshiri saw a refrigerated lorry driven by a rebel waiting to drive out to collect more bodies.
The DPR’s self-proclaimed minister of health first confirmed to her that the previous night’s collection had been moved to the morgue - but then he denied it.
Guards at the morgue told Moshiri they would not move the bodies anywhere, and they were waiting for international experts to arrive.
Meanwhile at the crash site, hundreds of separatists wielding heavy weapons controlled all access to the area.
After some negotiation they let through a convoy from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, a body set up by international governments to act as observers in conflict zones.
The group’s spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said the militants in control of the crash site had granted his team more access than on Friday, when they first arrived and were only permitted 75 minutes before being told to leave.
They were told to stay on roadways and not venture into fields.
“There’s a lot of security, people with heavy arms, we are being watched very carefully,” Mr Bociurkiw said.
“We are unarmed civilians so we are not in a position to argue heavily with people with heavy arms."
While there, Mr Bociurkiw’s 24-strong team witnessed unidentified local emergency personnel moving the bodies of the dead.
“There are ‘experts’ here who brought body bags with them. They are moving the bodies to the side of the road - as far as we can tell no bodies have been moved beyond the crash site," Mr Bociurkiw said.
“We don’t know who they are because we are not allowed, yet, access to them.
“They are going about business of collecting bodies and body parts, putting into them into what looks like professional body bags and bringing them to the side of road.”
Christopher Miller, editor of the English-language Kyiv Post, accompanied OSCE to the area.
He wrote for Buzzfeed that those investigating the wreckage were "a motley mix of local emergency-service workers, civilian volunteers and miners — many of whom confessed to supporting the separatist cause … none had experience conducting such a task".
He estimated more than 80 bodies were bagged during the day.
The bodies collected by the locals spent much of the warm, sunny day in bags, some open, some closed, by the side of the road.
But soon after the OSCE vehicles left the crash site around 4pm Saturday TIME reporter Simon Shuster saw workers beginning to stack the bodies onto trucks.
"Workers in filthy uniforms stacking corpses from flight MH17 onto old Zil trucks," he tweeted. "All refusing to say where the dead are being taken."
Shuster said the crash site was "lawless". The local mine boss had sent men to the area to help clear the bodies.
Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon said rebels told the OSCE their "experts" had been photographing bodies before removing them and would put the photos into a database.
And freelance reporter Volodymyr Solohub watched as the local ‘rescue workers’ loaded bodies onto the trucks, taking a picture of open-bed trucks lacking in any refrigeration.
Ukraine foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said the treatment of the bodies was “going beyond any sort of moral ground and moral consideration”.
His government’s central priority was to recover all bodies in a decent and human way, he said.
Ukraine Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman said Australia's ambassador to the Ukraine has been working with the government in Kiev to put together a plan for the recovery of bodies from the crash site, however the plan has been frustrated by separatists' refusal to guarantee the safety of rescue workers.
Equipment, including refrigerated trucks, was ready to transport the bodies from the scene of the crash.
However Mr Groisman said the team could not move in without a guarantee of safety from the rebels in the area - and that had not been given.
There were up to 900 separatists guarding the site, who had only allowed Ukraine's experts short and limited access to mark the bodies' location. So far 192 bodies had been found.
The government had established a nearby city as the best place to put a temporary morgue and victim identification centre, but the separatists had not guaranteed its safety either so no work has yet been done setting it up.
"Gunmen destroyed all our plans," he said.
Crash investigation and emergency response experts have gathered in Kiev from the US, UK, the Netherlands, Malaysia and Switzerland, however they had not been given permission to access the crash site.
Mr Groisman said when the relatives of the deceased arrived in Ukraine they would be given visas at the airport and looked after by their respective embassies, until there was a more concrete plan for allowing them access to their loved one's remains, and the site where they came to earth.
"We will do everything to support them here," he said.
The Ukraine government was still in delicate, indirect negotiations with the separatists over access to the site, he said.
Mr Groisman called on international governments to put pressure on Russia, which would in turn push the separatists to reach an agreement on unfettered access to the site.
But Russia’s willingness to do so, and its influence over Commander Grumpy, are yet to be tested.