HRABOVE, Ukraine — A muted sun baked golden fields of hay and sunflowers. Bloated and mangled bodies gave off a fetid stench. A burly gunman who called himself Grumpy stepped into the road as a convoy of international observers snaked along the bumpy country road to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
“I will let none of you pass! I have an order!” he shouted. Motley gunmen in ragtag uniforms flanked out alongside him. A lanky rebel in a beekeeping suit who reeked of alcohol folded his automatic rifle in his arms. The observers wandered out, then meekly retreated.
Two days after MH17 was shot down over east Ukraine — turning a simmering separatist conflict into a crisis of global proportions — the crash site remains a hideous mess that will make it harder for investigators to establish what happened — and for relatives to get peace. As Ukraine, Russia, and Moscow-backed rebels trade barbs over which side fired the missile that brought the Boeing 777 jet down, the bodies of the 298 passengers and crew killed instantaneously were still strewn across a field, decomposing in the 85-degree heat.
Nobody seemed to know where the bodies would be taken. Ukraine wants them stored 185 miles north in Kharkiv, the only nearby city with the facilities to take them, but claims that rebels have already spirited 38 corpses to their nearby stronghold in Donetsk and conducted their own autopsies. With the wreckage from the crash spread out over a 10-square-mile radius, the many bodies still at the scene may fare worse. Ukraine claims to have found 186, and BuzzFeed counted 82 in Hrabove alone, many of them unmoved since the crash. Local firemen and police officers, some of whom had clearly spent the night drinking moonshine, listlessly shoveled body parts into black garbage bags and left them to broil at the roadside.
Determining what exactly downed the plane from 33,000 feet up in the air looks all the more difficult. Independent investigators were nowhere to be seen. Ragtag militiamen with no obvious leadership barred observers and reporters from the field. The plane’s black boxes have vanished. Ukraine claims rebels are forcing rescuers to hand over all evidence with the intention of transferring it to Russia, which has blamed Kiev for the disaster. The rebels claim not to have found them.
Observers from the OSCE, a European security agency whose 57 member states include Russia, were denied full access to the site for the second day running when they drove up on Saturday. Rebels, led by “Grumpy,” said they had orders not to let them pass that came straight from the so-called prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian named Alexander Borodai. Though the men eventually relented and let the observers walk as far as the remains of one of the plane’s two engines, they did not allow them onto the field where the wreckage lay.
There, about two dozen workers from local branches of Ukraine’s emergency services ministry wandered amidst the debris, tagging bodies with white ribbons on sticks. Some were placed into body bags and carried to the side of the road. Many others lay out to rot in the sun. Ukraine says that the rebels are forcing the rescuers to work for them under gunpoint, but the men seemed unperturbed by their presence. The numerous ambulances shuttling to and from the scene transported several gunmen, but did not remove any bodies. About 10 “experts” from local police wandered nearby making marks on clipboards. A group of pro-rebel miners, still caked in soot from their shift, stood by, awaiting instructions to help find more bodies. No cordon was set up. Many cameramen stood amid wreckage from the fuselage to get shots, nearly stepping on a hand that plaintively stretched out from under it.
The crash has starkly brought to life the realities of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which says it is an independent Russian candidate state but seems to actually be made up of myriad armed groups with no obvious order or command structure. Grumpy, the armed men’s leader, said no investigators or observers would be allowed until the “experts” — who, as provincial police officers, would have no training in handling air disasters or other crime scenes of such magnitude — had completed their work.
He said that the men were employees of the armed wing of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s “prosecutor’s office,” which the self-proclaimed prime minister has said is investigating the crime. None of the men, however, even knew what the prosecutor’s name was offhand. One rebel in a safari hat who routinely made casual threats to shoot reporters in the knees eventually looked at the back of his “Donetsk Prosecutor’s Office” badge and found the prosecutor’s name, Ramil Khalikov. Khalikov was nowhere to be seen. The man, who declined to give his name, admitted that he had only joined the prosecutor’s office “very, very recently.”
Ukraine and the rebels accuse each other of holding up the removal of the bodies. Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk claims that international aviation experts who arrived to collect evidence were threatened by the armed men and fled the scene. Borodai, the rebel prime minister, said at a briefing on Saturday that Kiev was to blame for holding up their arrival after the United Nations Security Council authorized their mission a day earlier.
“There’s a grandmother. A body landed right in her bed. She says ‘please take this body away’. But we cannot tamper with the site,” Borodai said, according to Reuters. “Bodies of innocent people are lying out in the heat.”
Ukraine’s security service released detailed photographs on Saturday that it said suggested separatists fired the rocket near the rebel-controlled town of Snezhnoe, having mistaken the Malaysian flight for a Ukrainian cargo plane. Kiev says that Igor Bezler, a rebel commander it claims is a Russian agent, fired the rocket with the help of Russian military specialists. The rebels deny that they have the sophisticated equipment required to down aircraft at such heights, despite boasting of acquiring it only weeks earlier.
The longer it takes for an investigation to occur, the more difficult that investigation will be — and the easier it is for wild rumors and conspiracies to spread. Kremlin media has suggested that Ukraine was attempting to shoot down Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane as it flew nearby at the same time. Numerous pro-Russian websites — including a page on Russian Facebook clone VK written in the name of militia commander Igor Strelkov that has never been proven to actually be his — have even suggested that the plane was full of “unfresh” corpses and the downing was “planted” to frame the rebels.
None of this will go any way to assuaging the agony of the 298 victims’ relatives, powerless as their loved ones’ bodies lie for a third day in a far-flung field, baked into the asphalt and rotting into the ground. Rebels have gone through their things and piled them in a corner at the edge of the site. Ukraine claims that some of them looted the victims’ credit cards and attempted to make purchases with them.
But the real losses are still by the side of the road. A stuffed toy monkey. Books about 1990s English soccer coaches. A Malaysian family’s holiday photos. A child’s diary, in Dutch. A Macbook Pro with its screen smashed, opened in an apparent attempt to see if it still worked. A toddler’s white onesie, embossed with “I HEART AMSTERDAM.”
Nearer to the village, a cross bears a sign, “HEAVEN HELP US.” An empty plastic two-liter bottle lies by the engine wreckage. Amid the stench of death all around, you can smell the alcohol. The bottle looks new.