Jul 18th 2014
by N.S. | GRABOVO
THE field is filled with bodies. One has on jeans, but no shoes. A second is in a polo shirt and grey socks, one of which is charred. A third wears blue trousers, but your correspondent cannot see the face, smashed as it is under the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Eastern Ukraine has been at war for nearly three months. At first the violence came at a slow drip that few thought could turn into a torrent. Now 298 people—283 passengers and 15 crew—have died in an instant, their deaths seemingly the work of a sophisticated surface-to-air missile.
Passengers onboard Flight 17 had made themselves comfortable for the long journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. One, in black leggings, now rests next to a black duffle bag, which is somehow intact. A green luggage strap lies in the grass like a snake. Someone comments on the smell: acrid, heavy. Only death smells this way.
“We thought that they were bombing us,” says Natalia, from the nearby village of Grabovo, referring to the Ukrainian forces who skirmish almost daily with pro-Russian separatists in surrounding towns. The passengers fell, one fighter stationed here says, “from incredible heights”. As they came down, many were “undressed by the air”. One victim somehow kept his black shirt on, but lost half of his face. A can of Gillette shaving cream is wedged under his back. Nearby lie the makings of a holiday: an Avis rent-a-car receipt, a postcard, a toiletry kit with face-wash and a blue and white toothbrush. A pair of chocolate bars with macadamia nuts lie in the grass.
The rescue workers mark the bodies’ locations with bits of white cloth tied to stakes. These men do what they can to find all of the corpses, but the space is vast and the light is short. The only buildings in the area are a chicken factory on one edge of the field, and a stretch of small country homes that begin on the other edge, not far from the smouldering wreckage around the plane’s engine. The firefighters try to extinguish the blaze, but it takes a while—their hose has holes and spews water like little geysers. They were not ready for this. “Nothing has happened here for 30 years,” says one rebel, a local man who goes by the nickname “Tuna”.
A dead boy of about ten years old lies with his face frozen in fear. He has one shoe left on, and patterned socks. He is still strapped to his mangled blue chair, the belt tight across his lap.
It begins to rain, but only lightly. The mosquitos emerge, and the dogs too, barking in the distance. Clusters of rebel fighters grow thicker along the roads. They are in shock. “This is not a disaster,” says a local commander called Aleksey, “it is Hell.” The orange glow of ordnance flickers over a hillside on the horizon.