Conflict & Justice

The Malaysia Airlines crash site is a huge crime scene. And it's being trampled


An armed pro-Russian separatist gestures to reporters at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), Donetsk region July 21, 2014.


Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

The investigation into what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 17 is still, essentially, a mess.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Natalia Antelava of the BBC visited the crash site on Monday morning and calls it a "gigantic crime scene" stretching over large fields that take about 30 minutes to drive through. "They are littered with parts of the plane and body parts," she says.

Antelava says to give the crime scene the treatment it deserves, it would require an army of forensic investigators. Instead, miners have been sifting through the wreckage, while pro-Russian separatists accused of shooting down the plane have restricted access to the site.

"They've repeatedly prevented international investigators from gaining full access to the wreckage," President Barack Obama said in a speech on Monday. "As investigators approached, they fired their weapons into the air. These separatists are removing evidence from the crash site. All of this begs the question: what exactly are they trying to hide?"

And there's another key question: Is it already too late for a proper investigation?

"That investigation just hasn't happened," Antelava says. "And it's very difficult to imagine that it will ever happen."

While reporting at the crash site, she says, she was twice handed the passports of passengers on the flight. The men giving her the passports told her they were volunteers. They'd found the documents in the fields but didn't know who to give them to — so they just handed the passports to her. "That's just very telling of the sort of mess that this has turned into," Antelava says.

She turned the passports over to emergency crews working at the scene, but she also knew that such possessions should never be touched. They're both an important part of the identification process and vital for building the bigger picture of what exactly happened — just like bullet casings or broken objects at a crime scene.

There has been at least some progress, though. Separatists in Ukraine allowed Dutch forensics experts to examine the train that holds most of the victims' remains. Later on Monday, the train was allowed to leave the station where it was parked. It arrived Tuesday in Kharkov, a city controlled by the Ukrainian government.

The Dutch government also announced it was opening a war crimes investigation into the crash.

Antelava says the international pressure to allow investigators into the crime scene has been so huge the rebels are finally hearing it. But if recent moves made by the rebels are an attempt to make things right, she says, it's just too late.

For her, the sad part is that the passengers had no connection to the conflict in Ukraine, "probably most of them didn't even realize they were flying over eastern Ukraine at the time, [and] had to pay the price."