The graveyard of desecration

Published by The Mail on Sunday (2oth July, 2014)

There was something almost beautiful about the white ribbons tied to stakes as they fluttered in the wind; some sitting amid a sea of golden corn, others poking from clusters of yellow and blue wildflowers.

But then you saw that these were the most macabre of markings, each one representing the final landing place for hundreds of human beings slaughtered in the sky last week.

For this is the grimmest of graveyards. Here on the gentle rolling hills of eastern Ukraine, beside an abandoned Soviet-era poultry farm, lay the innocent people whose lives were extinguished so suddenly in an explosion at 33,000 feet on Thursday afternoon. 

I came across a little girl, maybe four or five, her uncovered corpse in its cute red top beside some bushes. Nearby was a pink and white stuffed toy bear, a big smile stuck incongruously on its felt face, alongside a Winnie the Pooh.

A Western woman with long, brown hair lay splayed on the ground, stripped naked as she fell, apart from the black T-shirt gathered around her shoulders. Her face, scorched around the eyes, stared up silently into the clouds above. She looked almost like she was puzzling over the place from which the shattered Malaysian Airlines plane was scattered over 34 square kilometres close to the Russian border.

Next to her was a black and white dog, one of two on the Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. It appeared as if asleep amid the summer grass.

Several human victims were still stuck in their seats. Others were mangled, mashed and hideously manipulated. I saw a leg, a battered trunk, a twisted hand reaching out from the grass and things more gruesome than I ever want to recall.

In a burned patch of grass littered with charred debris lay five crumpled corpses in a heap. Nearby were boarding passes, a smashed computer, a school book, piles of clothes, a box of chocolates – although bizarrely, two bottles of duty-free whisky had survived.

One can only imagine the terror with which these 298 passengers plummeted to earth – should they have been unfortunate enough to have still been alive – after their passenger plane was seemingly struck by a powerful military weapon.

There are many circles of obscenity around this mass murder, almost certainly caused by a missile fired by crowing pro-Russian rebels armed, funded and trained by Moscow. But perhaps the ultimate insult is that even in death these poor people were denied dignity.

So their devastated and dishevelled bodies were left in the baking summer heat, exposed to the elements for three days while uniformed goons with guns stole from their suitcases and then stopped international observers trying to solve the mystery of their deaths.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian rebels who most likely caused this terrible carnage treated an international crime scene with as much respect as a tourist site, allowing motley groups of paramilitaries and the growing media army to trample around some of the aircraft debris.

Perhaps the most sickening sight was a young male passenger whose body had been retrieved from a corn field and placed in a black body bag. But no one bothered to close it, so he lay there naked next to the road, his underpants around his legs.

Amid the chaos at the crash site, some of the 200 staff on the scene from Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergency Situations could be seen collecting bodies from the fields.

I watched as five of these officials wearing blue rubber gloves prodded some parts with a pole, then flipped them into a body bag. Next they placed the bag on a stretcher and carried it through the corn field before dumping it alongside several others at the roadside.

There were well over 50 bodies that could be seen at this one site alone. Some were decomposing fast, said one of the workers.

However, one witness who had been at the crash site for two days alleged he had seen officials from all sides stealing possessions from the dead passengers. ‘It is simply disgusting. They are just picking over the remains like the worst kind of common thieves,’ he said.

‘I saw them steal cameras from a bag, then pick up a pair of binoculars only to throw them away because they’d broken in the crash.’

He took me to where he said he had seen the thefts, some 200 yards away. There was a pile of possessions that had fallen from a luggage rack, lying beside a chunk of the aircraft speared surreally into the soil beside a small lake.

Sure enough, a broken pair of Tasco binoculars were still there, along with their case. But a big camera bag was empty. All that was inside was a pink sheet of paper showing black and white pictures of a baby called Ella Jane Hadfield, apparently born at 3.30am on December 6 last year to ‘proud parents… Cassandra & Joshua’.

The area was also strewn with travel documents, such as an e-ticket confirmation for a family of two Dutch adults and their child. Many passengers could be identified.

As I left the main road and walked past a small lake with wreckage poking from the water, I came across another small pile of possessions heaped on the grass. There was a thriller in Dutch, a celebrity magazine, some women’s underwear, and a bag with two hairbrushes inside.

Like so much of the stuff strewn across the hillside, it had almost certainly been rifled by pro-Russian rebels and others. Indeed, I saw one man in military fatigues pick through another collection of items nearby.

As the militiaman wandered over, I suddenly saw among the items on the ground a packet for Atenolol, a type of beta-blocker – and written on the box was the name of the patient taking the pills.

The name was John Alder. Believed to be in his 60s, he was one of the first two Britons identified as passengers on the downed plane, a fanatical Newcastle United fan who was travelling with his friend, Liam Sweeney, to watch his beloved team play their pre-season tour.

One man setting out on a trip to follow the team that gave him such pleasure. And one tiny sliver of a life snuffed out so stupidly.

The rebel leader at the site was a bearded man ostentatiously carrying a bullet-laden machine-gun. He said his name was Grumpy – ‘because I get grumpy when I am not shooting Ukrainian tanks’ – and he was clearly enjoying his new-found power.

‘This is a provocation of the Kiev junta, who shot down a civilian plane,’ he told me, despite the lack of any facts to support such a statement.

Before the recent declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway movement of separatist stooges doing Vladimir Putin’s dirty work in eastern Ukraine, this ‘soldier’ was a delivery driver. But yesterday, when a team of international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe arrived to inspect the site, ‘Grumpy’ blocked their way with a vehicle and barked orders at them.

First he told them they could not drive down to the crash scene in their cars. ‘I have orders not to let you pass,’ he said. ‘I warn you once. You have security here to protect you. Whoever disobeys my orders will be dealt with accordingly. I have told you many times. You are on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Arrivederci.’

Then he insisted the 24-strong team could not leave the road to walk in the fields where the bodies lay, and finally that only one or two could inspect the full site.

This was an improvement on the night before, when a drunken rebel started firing shots in the air over the observers’ heads. One OSCE officer said: ‘A visibly intoxicated armed guard fired his rifle in the air when one of the observers walked out of the prescribed area.’

But still ‘Grumpy’ was breaking agreements reached with the leaders of his self-proclaimed republic. Eventually the observers retreated again after being permitted only partial access.

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE, said they had to tread carefully. ‘We are unarmed civilians, so we are not in a position to argue with people with heavy arms.We are looking at security on the perimeter of the site, looking at the status in the condition of the bodies, the status in the condition of the debris, and personal belongings.’

Bociurkiw added that the scene was very disturbing. ‘Some of the body bags are open and the damage to the corpses is very, very bad. It is very difficult to look at.’

In Donetsk, the separatist leader Alexander Borodai – a former journalist – denied the rebels had in any way interfered with the work of observers and, rather absurdly, accused Kiev of barring access.

Borodai called for help from Russian Federation experts to assist with cleaning up the site. ‘Bodies of innocent people are lying out in the heat,’ he said. He denied reports that bodies had been transferred from the crash site, although added that his forces reserved the right to remove bodies given the delays.

‘There’s a grandmother – a body landed right in her bed,’ he claimed. ‘She says “take this body away” but we can’t tamper with the site.’

However, local Ukrainian officials said between 24 and 38 bodies were taken from the scene by pro- Russians, fuelling claims of a cover-up. Konstantin Batozskiy, adviser to the chairman of Donetsk regional administration, alleged the corpses were taken from Pazzypnoe village.

‘We have no idea where the bodies are now,’ he said. ‘These inhuman people simply threw the remains of passengers into the truck. They did not say a word and pushed away the rescue team with guns.’

Journalists also said they saw bodies being taken away by emergency workers. The revelations were met with fury in the Netherlands, where most of the victims came from, with Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans saying he was ‘shocked’ by the reported removals.

Such was the devastation in the area that some people in surrounding villages had holes pierced in their roofs from the wreckage and, according to one man, from the falling bodies of passengers.

Sasha Danilenko, a 14-year-old from nearby Moskovskoe, was in a car with his parents when they heard the explosion in the sky. ‘We heard the loud noise, then we could see a jet falling down. It was without one wing,’ he said. ‘It was too cloudy to see what caused it.’

Already wild conspiracy theories are sweeping the area. One taxi driver told me in all seriousness that this was the Malaysian Airlines plane that went missing in March, filled with corpses and then exploded over the region to undermine the rebel movement.

Unsurprisingly, there is growing international alarm over the way the crash site is being treated. ‘The integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place,’ Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said at a news conference in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

‘Any actions that prevent us from learning the truth about what happened cannot be tolerated. Failure to stop such interference would be a betrayal of the lives that we lost.’

Yesterday Ukraine echoed Washington’s calls that the pro-Russian rebels ensure international experts have the ability to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the downing of the jet.

‘An Asian airliner was destroyed in European skies filled with citizens from many countries, so there has to be a credible international investigation into what happened,’ said US President Barack Obama, adding that the crash was quite simply a ‘global tragedy’.

After a phone call between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr Putin it was agreed that an independent, international commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organisation should be granted swift access to the crash site.

The location of the airliner’s black boxes remains a mystery and the separatist leadership remained adamant last night that they had not been located by them. Mr Bociurkiw also said that he had received no information on their whereabouts.

Aviation experts, however, have warned not to expect too much from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders in understanding how the plane was brought down. The most useful evidence from the crash scene will be if missile pieces can be found in the debris that came down as the plane exploded, said John Goglia, a US aviation safety expert.

Maybe it is not too late for this kind of breakthrough amid the claims and counter-claims, so typical of this conflict ever since Russia pretended it had not invaded Crimea with troops who removed their insignia.

But three days after the shooting down of an airliner that shocked the world, the posturing of those who probably did it remained defiant while the decomposing bodies of their victims become more distended in the summer heat.

This was a revolting slaughter of 298 innocent people that becomes more callous, more cruel, more unspeakably grotesque by the day.

Meanwhile, that little girl’s body still lies uncared for and uncollected beside the bushes, one small testament to the inhumanity of an adult world she will never now join.

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