The re-purposed Soviet-era refrigerator cars holding the remains of passengers from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 sit on the tracks at the railway station of Torez, eastern Ukraine. Journalists swarm after the OSCE observers and Dutch forensics team who have arrived to examine them.
Before, no one had any idea where Torez was; they do now.
Watching from behind a small wooden fence, Larisa stands chatting with two other pensioners.
‘Before,’ she says ‘no one had any idea where Torez was. They do now, but only because of this tragedy.’
When it came to the MH17 crash, many people in the east believed the version of events told by Russian TV broadcasts.
Torez is a small city in the Donetsk region, under the control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic [DNR in Russian]. Like many cities in the Donbas it is a mining town, though the locals say that jobs for miners are scarce.
References to Torez in the history books are few and far between. A plaque on the train station proudly states that it housed the Soviet First Cavalry Army for six days in 1920. By 1963 its old Tsarist name, Chystyakove (the namesake of a local landowner) was dismissed as insufficiently proletarian and the city was renamed in honour of French communist leader Maurice Thorez.
Larisa says that this eccentricity of local history has attracted the occasional French tourist.‘We had a peaceful life,’ she says. ‘Now it's a mess. We are hostages of the situation and we don’t know when it will be over.’ Her companions nod in agreement.
Now, at least, the smell from over 200 bodies has improved.
‘When they first brought the bodies here by truck the smell was terrible. There was liquid on the roads from them. It's better now that they are refrigerated and that sawdust has been put down to absorb the liquid.’
Armed separatists escort the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and Dutch observers from the station to the crash site. Given the attention being paid to the disaster around the world these days, the DNR has issued a number of press passes. They are invaluable in getting through the numerous checkpoints across the roads of the Donbas.
Dutch forensics expert Peter van Vliet in Torez
At the site, journalists, photographers, and cameramen wait while the observers are shown around and briefed. One cameraman I speak to spent the night of the crash here. He tells me that he also has a background in forensics and has been asked by the OSCE to share what he documented that night.
The field now appears to be free of bodies. The last remnants have been loaded into a military truck. With the blue sky and golden fields, the scene would be idyllic were it not for the scattered possessions which don't belong here. A Dutch board game (perfect for a long flight), an aeroplane seat, stuffed animals; and the smell. It is much too sweet. Deceptively pleasant from a distance, it becomes pungent if you draw closer.
Blue sky and golden fields… an idyllic scene, were it not for the scattered possessions which don’t belong here.
The Lonely Planet guidebook in particular seems out of place in the eastern Ukrainian countryside, capturing both the excitement of travel and discovery with which these passengers left Amsterdam and their journey's cruel ending.
As the journalists wait, 67 year-old Viktor, approaches with his bicycle.
Like many, Viktor worked as a minor in the Donbas, and also spent years mining in the Russian city of Norilsk, regularly listed as one of the most polluted cities on earth. His children live in Ukrainian-controlled Kharkiv. He has stayed, unlike the thousands that have fled east to Russia, south to Crimea, and west to Kyiv.
‘I don't want to be a bother to my children,’ he explains.
Viktor points at the horizon, showing the direction the plane came from. They all heard its approach. He says that members of a local hunters' organisation were some of the first called to the site, and were responsible for placing the white flags next to bodies and limbs so that they could be found later. The Lonely Planet guidebook in particular seems out of place in the eastern Ukrainian countryside Viktor voted in the DNR independence referendum on 11 May – though not in the recent Ukrainian presidential election. He uses the term 'miners' as a synonym for the separatists, and talks of the long-standing humiliation of the once proud miners of the Donbas.
Viktor is certain that the separatists were not responsible for the shooting down of MH17.
Viktor is certain that the separatists were not responsible for the shooting down of MH17. He finds it suspicious that the bodies were cold and naked when they landed, and thinks that this crash site was faked to frame the separatists while the real plane flew elsewhere. The theory that the people on the plane were already dead is one that rebel leader Igor Girkin (also known as Strelkov) has been promoting among Russian-language media. That the effects of falling miles through cold and wind can do more than rip off clothes is not a fact many people are familiar with.
Having said his piece, Viktor and his bicycle continue down the road to the next village.
Life – and the fighting – goes on…
After he leaves, the OSCE observers and Dutch experts emerge from behind a line of guards holding automatic weapons and wearing the uniforms of the now abolished Ukrainian riot police – the Berkut.
Donetsk People's Republic militants in Berkut uniforms near the MH17 crash site.
Chief Dutch forensics expert Peter van Vliet compliments the separatists on a job that he says was done especially well given the circumstances. He says the top priority now is identifying the bodies. Ideally he would want that done in the Netherlands, but he says – with his voice wavering – he is not sure that will be possible.
After a while the observers and separatists drive off. The entire crash site is again now open to the elements and the onlookers; the red and white tape put up in a futile attempt to encourage people to keep out ends abruptly where the observers' vehicles had been. How far you explore – and thereby contaminate – the crash site is your choice. TV journalists pick spots in and around this charred field where one of the plane's engines rests, to film their reports.
Past the sunflower fields and checkpoints lies Donetsk. In the distance, smoke rises from a car factory hit in the fighting. The Ukrainian army had taken suburbs of the city that morning, and there was also shelling near the railway station. Armed insurgents brandish their weapons and Russian flags, riding atop armoured vehicles. Many of Donetsk’s streets also bear tread marks left by heavy tanks moving quickly over the hot asphalt. Unsurprisingly, Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov has announced that many of the players on his football team in Donetsk consider the situation too dangerous to return.
At 8 pm journalists gather at the Park Inn hotel for the daily OSCE briefing. By now it is an open secret that an agreement has been reached and that the bodies have left Torez headed for Kharkiv via Donetsk. OSCE spokesperson, Michael Bociurkiw, however, won't comment on the train's final destination.
There is growing anti-Russian sentiment in Malaysia.
The breakthrough had come earlier in the day when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that he had been in direct contact with Aleksandr Borodai, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic. They arranged to have the bodies of the deceased sent to Kharkiv, gain access to the crash site, and secure the plane's black boxes.
There is growing anti-Russian sentiment in Malaysia: ‘in recent days’ reads a comment on Razak's Facebook ‘there were times I wanted to give greater voice to the anger and grief the Malaysian people feel. And that I feel. But sometimes, we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome.’
It was a sentiment Kyiv was unlikely to agree with, but in a press release Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the moving of the bodies to Kharkiv in keeping with the agreement between Borodai and Razak.
Refrigerated train carriage in Torez, 22 July 2014
After the relatively uneventful OSCE press conference, journalists encounter the newly arrived Malaysian team waiting in the hotel lobby; they promptly approach them for further details. The Malaysians are extremely polite, but after failed appeals to be left alone because of the long distances they have travelled while fasting for Ramadan, they retreat upstairs.
The train moves on
Separatist guards now arrive outside the hotel; it is clear Borodai will be coming. Eventually he does, characteristically late. After their meeting, the Malaysians are invited to the separatists' headquarters in the former Donetsk Regional Administration building. There are long discussions behind closed doors before Borodai and the Malaysians emerge to sign an official agreement between Malaysia and the Donetsk People's Republic. This is not recognition of the DNR but it is the closest to recognition they have come.
The train with the remains of MH17 passengers is now free to move on from Donetsk to Kharkiv, where Ukrainian authorities await it for onward transport to the Netherlands. And as the train moves on and the tragedy comes closer to some kind of closure, the conflict that created it rages on, unabated.
All photos courtesy of the author