Conflict & Justice

At MH17 site, experts tread carefully


MH17 crash site in the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, Aug. 2, 2014.



HRABOVE, Ukraine — It’s not the easiest of balancing acts, but for Alexander Hug and others involved in securing the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, it’s the only way forward.

On one side is the Ukrainian military, steaming ahead in its offensive to crush the armed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

On the other are the rebels, fighting feverishly to maintain their diminishing hold on the region.

And in the middle are about 70 Dutch and Australian investigators, many of whom are unfamiliar with this corner of the world but tasked with crossing the front lines and first and foremost recovering the remains of around 80 bodies still believed scattered across the vast site.

The key to the investigation, says Hug, deputy chief Ukraine monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is the “working relationship” his team of monitors has cultivated with both rebels and Ukrainian forces.

“Direct contact is important,” he said near the crash site on Saturday. “It builds that relationship which is needed to get access as safe as we have here today.”

For the second day in a row, a large team of police investigators and forensic experts returned to the crash site amid the war-torn steppe and sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine, raising hopes that thorough investigation is finally underway.

But the fighting that continues to rage across the region — even in the immediate area — means those hopes are exceedingly fragile and depend largely on the spread of the clashes that day.

Saturday was an ideal case in point: while investigators busily scoured at least one large area of the crash site, a smaller team pulled back from another location that’d ended up less than two miles away from shelling, Hug told reporters.

As is often the case in this conflict, it is difficult — if not impossible — to ascertain exactly who is shelling whom.

The area around the crash site, which covers around 13 square miles, is technically within rebel-held territory. But it is only a short drive from a rapidly shifting front that is rarely well defined.

The road leading from government-controlled territory to the north — where the experts are based — is eerily deserted and perhaps best defined as a floating no-man’s-land.

On Saturday, the area surrounding the main crash site was mostly quiet, except for several thuds of what appeared to be artillery fire in the distance.

But some locals said they’d been first-hand witnesses to heavy bombardment nearby.

Yelena, an elderly woman who sped through the crash site in Hrabove with her husband on a motorcycle, was escaping what she claimed was shelling around Petropavlivka, only several miles away and the same area from which the small team of experts had withdrawn earlier in the day.

“Our entire village is now fleeing,” she said, her clunky, hand-painted helmet fitted tightly around her head.

It’s a claim rebels — who accuse Ukrainian government forces of shelling civilian areas and seeking to hamper the investigation — were eager to confirm.

An armed insurgent posted to the perimeter of the crash site, not far from where the experts were working, said Ukrainian forces regularly pounded nearby settlements where separatists held no positions.

The rebel, who goes by the nom-de-guerre “Baldie,” accused the military of deliberate timing.

“As soon as the OSCE leaves, the fighting starts up again,” he said.

Senior Ukrainian officials have regularly denied targeting civilian areas, and have publicly extended support for a thorough investigation (as have the rebels).

Whatever the case, Hug and his monitors — who are responsible for negotiating access to the site and clearing the way for the international experts to visit — say they’ve been able to maintain steady contact with both sides, something that facilitates easier access to the crash site.

But he concedes that because the situation “can change any time,” long-term planning is virtually impossible.

“We have to reassess it on a daily basis,” said Hug. “On an hourly basis, that is.”

Meanwhile, the debris from MH17 — twisted metal, torn fabric, and charred plastic —remains scattered across wheat fields and rolling farmland.

In one area, the stench of burnt fuel and human decay wafted through the air where parts of the plane’s decimated engines lay strewn about. Aluminum had melted into the ground and frayed wiring protruded jarringly from other parts of the downed plane.

Meanwhile, the rumble from artillery occasionally sounded off in the distance, while plumes of smoke drifted up near the horizon.

It’s something Cornelis Kuijs, who heads the Dutch recovery mission, isn’t quite used to.

In the past, the police colonel — who serves in the Royal Marechaussee, a Dutch Gendarmerie force — has been dispatched to participate in victim identification efforts following deadly tsunamis and terror bombings.

But it’s the first time, he says, that his force has been faced with staging a humanitarian police mission in an active war zone, “which makes us have to be very flexible, swift, creative.”

“These kinds of horrific dramas are luckily not everyday business for us,” he said outside the team’s headquarters, a dusty, Soviet-era compound in government-controlled territory, around 40 miles north of the crash site.

But he exudes confidence when speaking about the daunting and gruesome task his investigators face in coming days and, most likely, weeks as they’ll sift meticulously through wreckage and human remains.

“People at home expect us to bring their beloved home,” he said. “And that’s our main and only objective.”