Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: As the body bags arrive, confusion reigns on the hillside disaster site

Villagers in Grabove, eastern Ukraine, tell Andrew Buncombe of the moment Flight MH17 fell out of the sky and the chaos that followed

It was the grimmest of tasks and one for which they were equipped with nothing more than stretchers, body bags and green rubber gloves.

When the rescue workers found a body, or at least a body largely intact, they placed it into a black nylon bag, drew shut the zipper and laid it on the edge of the crash site.

Yet much of their work involved collecting individual pieces of flesh, fragments of remains. These they scooped up with both hands and placed into plastic carrier-bags which they then tied tightly shut.

By late morning, the workers, many of them young men, had laid out five body bags and a number of smaller sacks of fragments. Did the bodies belong to men or women? “I don’t know,” said the man supervising the task, drawing on a succession of cigarettes as he watched the work. “Only the experts can tell.”

Video: Aftermath of MH17 crash

Three days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam with the loss of 298 people, emergency workers under the supervision of armed pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine were still working to recover the bodies from this quiet hillside outside Donetsk.

Officials said the bodies of up to 200 passengers and crew had been gathered and taken to refrigerated railway wagons at a station, waiting to be repatriated home, at some point, to their families in the Netherlands, Malaysia, Britain and elsewhere.

But amid ongoing accusations and counter-accusations between the Ukrainian government and rebel forces, questions remained about the ability of the rescue workers to complete the task and the manner in which it’s been done.

The villagers of Grabove, a community of farmers and coalminers, had been going about their business last Thursday afternoon when they heard a huge noise in the sky and looked up to see parts of the Boeing 777 falling to the earth. The emergency workers said there were a total of eight major sites, located across a six-mile stretch of fields, where bodies and debris were located. Here, in Grabove, close to the Russian border and with a large part of the hillside turned to cinder, at least one of the jet’s engines hit the ground.

The engine, along with other large parts of debris, was inside an area that had been taped off by the recovery workers, technically in the employment of the Ukrainian government. When the wind picked up, flapping the red and white tape, the air smelled of bodies and burning.

Najejda Ivanava, who said she had spent her entire life in Grabove, had been sitting outside, chatting with friends when she saw the plane “rolling all around the village”. Yesterday morning, the 71-year-old Mrs Ivanava, with four gold teeth and wearing house slippers, stood watching the recovery operation. Bodies are removed from the site Bodies are removed from the site

“[The plane] moved right, it moved left,” she said. “There were sparks flying out from it... We dived on to the floor.”

She said most of them had been too afraid to go to the site. Instead, one of the neighbours got on his bicycle to see what had happened. He returned with stories of scores of dead bodies, many of them still strapped in their seats. This had made her feel even less like going to the scene.

“My neighbour turned on the TV and we heard that the [rebels] had then arrived,” she added. “We feel so sad that so many people died.”

As she watched, standing outside an asbestos-roofed cottage where a number of apricot trees now bore scorched fruit, a delegation from the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) arrived. They were escorted by a dozen or so armed men, several of them wearing masks that covered their faces. With the government of Ukraine unable to oversee the emergency operation, the OSCE delegation has become the only international body granted access to the sites.

Last night, it was reported that the Dutch authorities were negotiating to have the train carriages placed in the control of the Ukrainian government. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said a team from the Netherlands would likely arrive today to begin the process of identification. A train in Torez believed to contain some of the bodies A train in Torez believed to contain some of the bodies

Amid repeated claims from Ukraine, the US and Britain that evidence points to the plane being shot down by the pro-Russian rebels, the rebels have in turn claimed that the Ukrainian armed forces were responsible for the tragedy. Some have even said that the Ukrainian armed forces had shot down the plane in the belief that it was the aircraft of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

The people of Grabove, the witnesses to such extraordinary scenes, appeared uncertain what to believe. One man, riding a bicycle, said the villagers either worked in the coal mines that dotted the landscape or else grew vegetables.

He said he had seen fire in the sky and saw pieces of debris falling to the ground. Asked what he believed had befallen the plane, he said: “What the Ukrainian channels are saying is not true.” He refused to say anything else and pedalled off.

What the villagers cannot escape is the steady realisation that this sloping hillside has become not just an emergency site but most likely a crime scene and a de facto burial area. Who knows how many bodies will eventually be recovered from here, and how many will not.

Meanwhile, the young men with their body bags and green plastic gloves, continued their work. By early afternoon, the line of body bags had expanded to 19. The grimmest of tasks goes on.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory