By SABRINA TAVERNISE and NOAH SNEIDER
New York Times
JULY 20, 2014
TOREZ, Ukraine — Three wrenching days after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the bodies of most of those aboard have ended up here, in a fly-infested railway station in a rough coal-mining town in eastern Ukraine.
For now, they are stuck, lying in five gray refrigerated train cars in this rebel-controlled war zone, hostages to high politics and mutual distrust.
The government in Kiev has accused the Russian-backed rebels who control the area of blocking access to the bodies and the crash site and delaying what is already a very painful process for the families of the dead.
The rebels insist they are cooperating, and say they want to turn the 247 bodies they had recovered as of Sunday over to international representatives. But they say those officials have not arrived; the rebels accuse the Ukrainian government of scaring the officials off, though European officials have disputed that claim.
Neither of the conflicting story lines fully reflects the chaos at the scene, where an incoherent recovery effort is being carried out by motley groups of mostly untrained people. On Sunday, they included miners straight from their shifts; local residents who arrive on run-down motorbikes; and poorly equipped emergency service workers who sleep in the field, amid the stench of decay, in sagging orange and blue tents.
The prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, said Sunday that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was negotiating with rebels to move the bodies out of the conflict zone. “All efforts are focused on getting this train onto territory controlled by Ukrainian authorities,” Mr. Rutte said in Amsterdam, according to Reuters. He said a team of specialists was likely to enter the crash site on Monday in an effort to identify the bodies.
But for now, their train is going nowhere, a final indignity for families as they grieve over the loss of their loved ones. When asked Sunday afternoon where the train was headed, its driver said he had not been given a destination.
“Nobody knows, and no one will say,” he said.
The United States and Ukraine have criticized the rebels for what they say has been evidence of tampering and concealment at the crash site.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev that Ukrainian emergency responders had been forced to turn over recovered bodies to the separatists. And other Ukrainian officials said that the roadblocks to getting experts into the site, and the bodies away from it, all lay with the rebels.
At the site itself, there was little sense of any order.
Instead of a crime scene marked with police tape, helicopters scouring its 13 square miles and specialists poring over every detail, the area was a post-Soviet free-for-all playing out in a war zone, where most of the trappings of a modern state have fallen away. With the police mostly gone, for example, militiamen now respond to traffic accidents.
“This is a disaster like no other,” said Michael Bociurkiw, the spokesman for the European security agency mission. The standard response, he said, is, “You secure the area, and then you go about the established business.”
He added: “That hasn’t happened here. And whether they even have the ability for that to happen is unclear.”
At the crash site on Sunday, rescue workers picked through a charred pile of suitcases, mangled airplane seats, and bits of metal and clothing, using nothing but their hands and a few small sticks. Cows grazed in one of the fields near the fuselage. Army green stretchers, some with dark splotches of blood, lay on the matted grass near the road.
“Body!” shouted one of the men who was wearing large, yellowish, mittenlike gloves and no mask. They dug harder, yanking unsuccessfully at a large hunk of metal that lay heavily on an unrecognizable body part.
A second asked for help. “There’s no one here,” said a third. A fourth asked: “Does anyone have a shovel?”
American intelligence officials have said a proper investigation could answer crucial questions about who is responsible for shooting down the plane, but the hopes for retrieving anything useful from the site are dwindling with each passing day.
Two days after the crash, potentially decisive evidence was lying, seemingly undiscovered, in a recently harvested field about five miles from the central crash site: a large curled sheet of metal, apparently part of the outside of the plane, that had multiple, even holes torn into it. A weapons expert who reviewed photographs said the holes were consistent with a blast from a missile of the type American officials believe brought down the plane.
Distrust poisoned the process. One rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said Sunday that the plane’s flight recorder, which contains details about the plane’s status before it went down, had surfaced, but that he wanted to give it to international experts, not Ukrainians.
Officials in Kiev have accused the rebels of trying to spirit the recorder to Moscow and released audio recordings that they claimed proved it. And Ukraine’s government said Sunday that it had captured 23 rebels who were all Russian passport holders.
Nikolai, a coal mine worker, had driven 35 miners from their morning shift in a large, rusty white bus with blue stripes to help with the search. The miners walked seven in a line with an emergency worker, combing the fields for bodies and plane parts.
Nikolai — who would give only his patronymic, Vasilievich, and not his last name — recently had his own tragedy. On Tuesday, a bomb hit his apartment building, killing his brother. Villagers blame the Ukrainian military, which they say was aiming at a nearby rebel base, though Ukraine denies that.
“Tomorrow he would have been 55,” Mr. Vasilievich said, eating seeds in the shade of his bus. He blames the Ukrainians for shooting down the passenger jet, a common sentiment here.
Ragtag rebels were mostly gone from the site on Sunday, though one who stood guard bemoaned the primitiveness of the operation. He told of a small pack of foxes that ran through the wreckage at night, attracted by the smell.
“They could have done it all with helicopters by now, flying over the fields,” said the rebel, who identified himself only as Vova, holding a rifle made in 1954. “Grief should bring people together.”
Also gone was a trigger-happy rebel nicknamed Mosquito with a penchant for firing into the air when people disobeyed him. The European security agency monitors left the crash site on Friday after hearing shooting. But on Sunday they were walking around the site again, protected by guards, many of whom wore the blue camouflage pants and maroon berets of Ukraine’s disbanded special police.
Since the crash on their doorsteps, villagers from Grabovo have gathered for prayers and laid flowers along the road. Yellow daisies rested on one piece of black metal at the site, and beside it lay a small stuffed doll in a purple dress, left as a tribute.
President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine has claimed that rebels stole credit cards from the wreckage. One villager, Elena, who declined to give her last name, strongly disputed that.
“That is a sin, a big sin in our faith,” she said. “This is a cemetery. Who would take from it?”