Hrabove, eastern Ukraine: Under a dazzling sun, heavily cropped fields roll away to the sky – a colourful patchwork draped over a region they call the breadbasket of Europe.
MH17: 'train of the dead'
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MH17: 'train of the dead'
Ukraine accuses separatist rebels of hiding evidence that a Russian missile was used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner, as a train prepares to take away the dead.
But something is not right with this picture – amid the golden wheat and the yellow sunflowers, there are splashes of purple and a garish green; and among them, dots of white. These are the mangled seats, travel blankets and pillows from flight MH17.
Nature is filled with curves. But these fields are strewn with jagged edges – a shredded wing section; a hunk of the rear fuselage; and in the middle of a still-smouldering mess of aircraft parts and personal effects, there are tanks that held the waste from the aircraft’s plumbing, right up until a missile brought the Boeing 777 down, killing all 298 passengers and crew as they flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last Thursday.
Walk down the narrow bitumen road and the sickening impact of this entire 35-square-kilometre disaster zone is tidily at your feet – flies buzzing at six black plastic body bags, their contents little resembling the bodily form of hale and hearty friends and relatives who were kissed goodbye at Amsterdam. And the three small green plastic bags don’t bear thinking about – they are what the technically minded might describe as miscellaneous body parts.
A kind local has placed a gladiolus on each of the bags. But standing here, smelling the smells, you have to ask in what kind of world are the bodies of the innocent left to roast in the summer heat for three days – and rage wells up.
You must take care as you wander the fields not to tread on the bits and pieces of so many lives, in which MH17 probably was the start or the end of an adventure of some kind. A black Sport City toiletry bag, a child’s lanky-legged soft toy, an "I-heart-Amsterdam" T-shirt, an umbrella, two bottles of Famous Grouse whisky, still in their duty-free sleeves. There is a photocopy of the details page of 59-year-old Susan Hijmans’ passport and a copy of an itinerary, prepared by a travel agent, for a Mr Hendry.
There’s livestock to consider – a dead sheep, which presumably was on the ground, but nearby are some of the cages in which live animals are freighted, and strewn around them are the carcasses of a turkey, a brilliant blue and yellow macaw and a dozen pigeons with identity bands on their legs.
It is striking that there is nothing of value. I see a Louis Vuitton passport folder, but the document is gone; there is nothing that resembles the remains of a wallet or jewellery.
The area is littered with suitcases and tote bags, some with their contents spilling out, but it is impossible to say if the site has been looted or merely tidied up, as suggested by the piles of baggage. But even on day three, that I can walk where I like is a measure of how sloppily this disaster zone is being managed.
Reports on the toll from the separatist war being waged here between the forces of the Ukraine government and pro-Russian rebels are proof of the challenge – eight national soldiers killed and 50 others wounded in the past 24 hours.
But an ugly blame game is playing out. Washington and most Western capitals are backing the Kiev government’s claim that a Soviet missile, fired by rebels, brought MH17 down. The rebels claim elements of the national forces fired the shot, and Moscow is backing the rebels by heaping blame on Kiev, too.
A kind local has placed a gladiolus on each of the bags. But standing here, smelling the smells, you have to ask in what kind of world are the bodies of the innocent left to roast in the summer heat for three days –and rage wells up.
And because this is a rebel-controlled area, access for the Ukrainian and international experts who should have been arriving within minutes and hours of the crash still must be negotiated with the rebels.
The unseemliness of it all suggests a deliberate effort to destroy the forensic value of the site ahead of an inevitable international investigation into the crash.
The fate of the bodies of the dead is illustrative. It made sense for the rebels to collect the bodies that fell into or near the homes of local farmers and villagers – but why the secrecy about where they are stored? They are reportedly in a morgue at nearby Donetsk, but a BBC reporter who went to check at the morgue was detained on Sunday.
After allowing them to bake in the sun and humidity for 48 hours, the rebels trucked them overnight on Saturday to the railway station at nearby Torez, where a locomotive had hauled four old Soviet-era refrigerated wagons. It has been dubbed the "train of the dead", but its destination is not clear.
As I approached the station platform, a young rebel fighter pointed a gun and ordered me to back off, then changed his mind and allowed me to walk the length of the train – on which the locomotive keeps running to power the fridges.
By the time I arrived, the door seals on the wagons were doing their job. But earlier in the day, when a team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe inspected the train, they were unable to verify the rebel’s count of 196 bodies because they could not enter the wagons.
“Because of the conditions they were in you need professional protective equipment to go in there, the stench was absolutely overwhelming,” OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told reporters. “I don’t want to be too gruesome but it’s a very, very difficult scene to watch. Most of the body bags were intact – you could see some body parts visible, slightly torn, but on the whole they were intact. But most crucially, there is refrigeration finally because today is another quite warm day in this area. We were told that for the time being those cars will be stationary.
"They were wondering when experts will be arriving to start processing the bodies. The thinking is that the cars should be taken to Ukrainian-controlled territory such as [the city of] Kharkiv, and they can be processed there.”
Again, note the lack of clarity on whose thinking this is, and whether or not all sides agree. But making sure that everything is dragged out, reports early on Sunday suggested a deal, “preliminary” mind you, between Kiev and the separatists for the bodies from MH17 to be moved to a new location.
Likewise, the rebels have consistently denied they had recovered the aircraft’s black box recorders. But on Sunday, Alexander Borodai, the so-called Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, fessed up: "Jet parts resembling the black boxes were discovered at the crash site."
He said the boxes would be handed over to "international experts if they arrive", without making clear which experts.
Similarly, there were reports that another deal had been struck to allow 400 of the national government’s emergency officials to work on and search the site. But when I was there, the count would have been no more than 20.
And instead of the TV cop show staple of policemen, shoulder to shoulder, as they make an almost-microscopic search for evidence, the scene at Hrabove was distressing – local miners in groups of two and four, but perhaps only 20 or 30 all up, wandered the fields with no obvious pattern.
And again, there was a deal – in return for access, all the bodies and body parts found were to remain in rebel custody, in the short term at least.
And do my ears deceive me? As I left the site on Sunday afternoon there was the unmistakable sound of an aircraft making a single transit overhead, so high it was not visible in the clear sky. But what was it – possibly a surveillance aircraft, Russian or Western. Surely not a commercial airline taking its chances on the Ukrainian air lanes that you would have thought would by now have been abandoned by the airlines of the world.