Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: No forensic investigators, co-ordination or body bags as Ukraine locals are left to scour gruesome scene
This corner of Ukraine is woefully ill-equipped for the aftermath of a disaster of this magnitude
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Friday 18 July 2014
In the ripening sunflower fields of Rozsypne a hellish harvest was reaped today. As a rag-tag column of off-duty coal miners, police and emergency workers filed through the towering blooms, an occasional shout was heard - the remains of another passenger from flight MH17 had been found.
For some, the task was overwhelming. One volunteer fainted upon discovering a corpse. Elsewhere, a draped coat or a piece of clear polythene was all the dignity afforded to the 298 souls who had been making themselves comfortable barely two hours into the long flight to Kuala Lumpur and were now to be found mutilated, scattered across six square miles of eastern Ukraine's fertile plains.
The aftermath of the explosion which dismembered the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 in mid-air on Thursday afternoon has turned the area between the two villages of Rozsypne and Hrabove, some 25 miles from the Russian border, into a sprawling charnel house. Dozens of bodies fell into crop fields, some into houses, in this sparsely-populated region which today was largely devoid of the modern paraphernalia the world has come to expect to descend upon the aftermath of an aviation disaster.
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Where there should have been investigators and rescuers clad in forensic suits conducting a fingertip search, there were helmeted coal workers, their faces still blackened by the dust of their last shift, and Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen picking through crops and an only spasmodically guarded debris field.
Where there would have been body bags and a temporary morgue, villagers and volunteers used whatever came to hand in the summer heat - a blanket, a sheet weighed down by stones or, more often, nothing apart from a stick cleaved from the surrounding shrubs and planted in the ground with a strip of red or white material to denote another lost life.
The management of the scene of an apparent mass murder was every bit as rudimentary as a corner of Europe which is an effective warzone could muster. The human consequences of what took place inside the cabin of MH17 at about 3.15pm on Thursday were consequently laid brutally bare.
In Rozsypne, Irina Tipunova described, like many other villagers, how the air had been filled with the sound of an explosion and then an unimaginable rain of human bodies falling from the sky, including one - an unidentified woman - through the roof of her home.
The 65-year-old pensioner said: “There was a howling noise and everything started to rattle. Then objects started falling out of the sky. And then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen, the roof was broken.”
The naked body of the MH17 passenger was today still lying inside the house, beside a bed. Ms Tipunova said: “The body's still here because they told me to wait for experts to come and get it.”
Another villager, in her 20s, added: “I opened the door and I saw people falling. One fell in my vegetable patch.”
Ukrainian coal miners prepare to search the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane (AP)
Footage unthinkable for broadcast in most jurisdictions but no less freely accessible via a basic internet search paid grim testimony to every type of damage that the explosion on board the Malaysian Airlines jet at 33,000ft did to its human cargo.
Many of the dead remained strapped into their seats, fully clothed and apparently undisturbed by the violence of their passing. One witness described a ten-year-old boy for whom the only evidence of the trauma of his final moments was the look of fear frozen onto his face.
Amid the wreckage of the main impact point - a long strip of blackened field punctuated by lumps of airframe and the exposed blades of MH17's Rolls Royce Trent engines - the scene owed more to the imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch.
Bodies had been charred beyond recognition by the heat of fires on impact which were ferocious enough to liquefy parts of the aluminium fuselage. While many were grotesquely maimed - as local resident put it “I've never seen anything like it - you look down and see ears, fingers, bones” - others were strangely untouched and intertwined.
John Wendle, a freelance photographer who was among the first on the scene, told Channel 4 News: “I saw the bodies of a man and woman tangled together - as if they were hugging. They must have been sitting together. There was a whole line of bodies stretching away. There were between a dozen to two dozen bodies just off the road and it looked like that had been arranged.”
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Others remarked on how passengers had been randomly stripped of clothing in their journey to the ground - one man still wore his Nike trainers but no trousers, another clad only in his socks. One child wore a t-shirt with the words “Don't Panic”.
In the words of one Ukrainian separatist fighter at the scene, it was as if they had been “undressed by the air”.
Here and there, single flowers had been placed on bodies and their coverings by villagers still numbed by the events of the previous 24 hours.
Ultimately, however, it was not the bodies which explained the tragedy of MH17 - and the brutality of its demise - but the possessions that surrounded them.
A cuddly toy monkey found in the wreckage (Getty Images)
A cuddly toy monkey - the unpicked stitching on its nose offering evidence of just how much it had been loved by its owner - most probably belonged to one of the 80 children on board. An airport novel in Dutch, its 14-euro price sticker still on its cover and sitting alongside a barely-thumbed Lonely Planet guide to Bali, bore testimony perhaps to carefree holiday plans.
Close by, the contents of a backpacker's rucksack had spilled to reveal amid the clothing and sandals two shrink-wrapped pork sausages and what appeared to be a “Happy Birthday” paper garland.
In among this contrail of personal possessions came countless items of identifying documentation - car rental agreements, boarding passes, medicine bottles and passports.
It was a measure of the chaotic oversight of the crash scene, in which residents and journalists were allowed to freely roam, that police began collecting passports found in one section of the wreckage before being told to stop in case their removal hampered the identification of surrounding corpses.
What passes for officialdom in this corner of Ukraine - a 45-minute drive from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and out of Kiev's control for at least three months - was woefully ill-equipped for the disaster that has turned its agricultural heartland into killing fields. The only infrastructure by the crash scene - where the cockpit fell some six miles from the tail section - is a poultry farm.
Denjen Doroschenko, an Australian-Ukrainian journalist interviewed at the crash scene, lost his temper on air after a militiaman intruded on the area.
He shouted at the man: “You don't know what you're doing, you shouldn't be here because you don't know how to look after a crash site. So bugger off!”
A new copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Bali found at the crash site (Getty Images)
In this heartland of pro-Russian sentiment, it did not take long nonetheless for the finger of blame to be pointed at the government in Kiev and its perceived Western supporters.
While the outside world held the use by rebels of a Russian-built surface-to-air missile as the most likely explanation for the catastrophe, the preferred theory at the scene was an attack by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Only a few, on condition of anonymity, were prepared to acknowledge the existence of a Buk self-propelled missile launcher in the area.
Igor Girkin, a local pro-Russian military commander who had appeared to acknowledge his forces shot down the Boeing 777 in a Facebook posting later deleted, was tonight quoted in the Russian media suggesting that the jet had been deliberately loaded with corpses and crashed to damage the rebel cause.
Such spurious and desperate stuff was evidence that, for the moment at least, even the horrors of MH17 had not dimmed the appetite of the separatists and their backers for further conflict.
As if to underline the point, the slowly intensifying effort at the crash scene took place to a soundtrack of small arms fire and the thud of Grad missile launchers as both sides continued to seek victory at an increasingly bloody cost.
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