Paul McGeough, Petropavlovska, Ukraine
Sydney Morning Herald
August 6, 2014
A bugger of a day on the MH17 crash site on Monday – Australian and Dutch investigators were on the road before 8am, but the menace of war kept them away from the site for most of the day, and when they finally got to don their rubber gloves and High-Viz vests, it was for just 30 minutes at the scene.
Their objective was a swatch of wheat fields near Rassypnoe where the front-end of the Boeing 777 crashed to earth. Barely recognisable, the cockpit section is pancaked in a field of sunflowers on the edge of the village and a colleague tells me he had seen some of the overhead luggage bins from the business-class cabin hanging in a tree near here.
The investigators, bolstered by the arrival of a small Malaysian contingent – and later, more on what their police chief had to say when we spoke – spent virtually the entire day in their vehicles by a shady grove, while their security escorts haggled over secure routes to get them to where they needed to go. Doing their job on Monday meant dodging bombs.
And in the absence of a full investigative assault on the site, it became a day in which people made observations or comments that shed intriguing new light on aspects of one of the more challenging disaster recovery operations of modern times.
Such as: for how long does it go on?
Why do the Dutch and the convoy’s Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe escorts have a fleet of armored vehicles, but none of their Australian partners are shielded as they cross back and forth over the frontlines in a reckless separatist war?
Did you understand all the promises to bring back all the victims’ possessions to mean down to the last teddy bear? I did, but these investigators do not see that as a part of the jobs.
Just before the convoy pulls away from the Soviet-style dormitories that serve as the investigators’ HQ, at Soledar, 95 kilometres north of the crash site, one of the Dutch officers wonders aloud how long this emotionally charged operation might continue.
He uses the terms ”politically acceptable” and ”drawing a line under it” as he grapples with the challenge for political leaders in the victims’ countries when, inevitably, they find themselves at the intersection of demonstrating compassion and acknowledging that little more can be achieved.
His thoughts inform my interviews with his fellow investigators in the course of a day when they didn’t get to do much investigating.
We drive south from the salt mines of Soledar and into a summer farming landscape that reveals why the Ukrainian flag is bright blue and golden yellow. The yellow panel is the sunflowers and golden grain; the blue panel is a vaulted sky that seems to go forever over the flat land.
The investigators’ deal with the separatist rebels and the Ukrainian Army is that all sides put their heads together each evening and decide on which transit corridors to use to reach the 50-square-kilometre crash site.
But before we reached Rassypnoe, it becomes clear that the deal is not holding – several barrages of outgoing mortars crack the morning air and the investigators’ plan for the day.
The investigators sit in the grove while their OSCE escorts attempt to firm up the transit deal of the previous evening. The talks last a few hours, dragging in different rebel commanders and officers of the Ukrainian Army, but they seem to be going nowhere as OSCE monitors chase after each barrage to determine where it came from.
The Malaysians have been busy at checkpoints on the drive south taking selfies with Ukrainian troops in front of their tanks and APCs, and now they are posing for shots with the rebel fighters. They seem very at home with representatives of the two factions in this war that accuse each other of shooting down MH17.
When the convoy does idle, there’s an opportunity for the curious-minded to wander its length – 20 vehicles in all. By the Dutch vehicles we ask media spokesman Dennis Muller if his men feel safe when they are stuck out here?
He boasts that the armour on the Dutch communications vehicle is three times as heavy as the conventional 4WD that it looks like. What about the rest of the Dutch vehicles? “All brought from Holland, even the two refrigeration trucks. All Dutch personnel ride in armoured vehicles,” Muller said.
Not quite it seems. A bunch of them are travelling with the Australians in a fleet of buses – several small ones that look like they might have been delivery vans from the Kiev fish markets. And a big red passenger bus that might have been picked up at the first bus stop that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s special envoy Angus Houston and his Dutch counterpart chanced upon when they landed in the country.
Frustration rises. These debris-strewn fields shriek for the attention of the investigators; but another outgoing volley, close in and from another direction, shrieks louder. The OSCE monitors are rightly cautious – outgoing fire tends to attract return fire.
We chance upon Muller again and he is starting to fume – “we need just a couple of hours at this site, so it’s very disappointing because we’re here to do one thing – to bring back the remains and the possessions. All the time we waste here is so precious.”
Note yet another reference to bringing back possessions.
Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar is travelling with the convoy for the first time – and the frustration does not sit easily with him.
Standing in the shade of a tree, as investigators loll around to escape the heat, he tells us: “Today we have done nothing – we’re still waiting for negotiations . . . I hope they will allow us to do our task.”
As the representative of a government that lost 43 among the 298 victims of the MH17 crash, Abu Bakar refers to his political masters when I ask if Kuala Lumpur is starting to wonder about how long the search should go on.
The police chief draws a breath before making a small speech that reveals the importance of sensitivity training for police chiefs and other senior officials.
“Speaking personally,” he says, “we have to do the best we can. But it will get very difficult with the passing of time because if there are more body parts out there, they’ll have rotted or have been taken by scavengers.”
Suddenly, there’s a scramble for the convoy to mount up. By 2pm, the OSCE admitts defeat, abandoning the day’s plan and advising the investigators to head for another area. But they fail to negotiate a secure passage to their preferred next destination.
It seems, however, that the way is open to a third area, between the villages of Rassypnoe and Petropavlovska. However, the fate of that option hangs in the hazy air because even before the convoy can get under way, new, loud retorts roll across the fields. About two dozen missiles, probably the ubiquitous and highly inaccurate Grad missiles, of which both sides in this conflict reportedly have huge stocks.
It seems this has become the convoy to nowhere. It is stuck where it started the day, on a gentle hillside next to Rassypnoe, which allows the investigators expansive views of the crash site that they cannot reach.
After a time the OSCE official decide that it’s safe to proceed and finally, at about 3pm, the convoy pulls in near a tree-lined watercourse that bisects a setting like an Old Masters’ landscape – the old water tower, the poplars, and the cropped fields.
The inspectors tumble into the hot sun, forming teams with some carrying folded body bags, as they fan out in the flat fields. A Dutch sniffer dog, Spencer, works along side them.
At the edge of a field of sunflowers, a stake is driven into the black earth, a white rag affixed to the top of it signalling a body or body parts that seemingly had already been collected. The investigators go off in three different directions and the rumble of outgoing fire nearby doesn’t perturb them, but within 30 minutes the convoy is preparing for the 100-kilometre drive back to the Soledar dormitories.
As they do, Australian Federal Police commander Mark Harrison touches on the ”for how long” question.
“Access which dictates how long we can spend in the area is decided by the parties to the conflict – the Australians and the Dutch are here at the forbearance and understanding of the people who control the area.”
He doesn’t have to say that on Monday those people had been neither forbearing nor understanding. But he also alludes to the challenge in finding more human remains. “Our expectation is that the remains outstanding will be more of a challenge to find.”
Referring to the tall crops in so many of the fields – sunflowers and corn as high as your shoulder and thigh-high wheat – he adds: “We also have to accept the fact that [there’s] high vegetation and dense undergrowth, so we might not find some of the remains.”
In this conversation it became clear that Harrison’s definition of ”possessions” was much narrower than the understanding implied by Prime Minister Abbott, his envoy Angus Houston and others.
For the policeman, the term means nothing more than documents that might help to identify passengers such as some papers they find on Monday, which appear to be an itinerary issued by Australia’s Harvey World Travel.
“It’s essential we get these documents,” he said.
Asked about family and friends’ expectations of recovering prized teddy bears and other such possessions, Harrison said: “We’re not looking for teddy bears – that’s a wider search aspect for someone else.”
How long will it last? And if those precious possessions are not found now, will there be another opportunity before they deteriorate in the coming local winter?
The Kiev-appointed regional governor announced on Monday afternoon that on Tuesday he would visit former rebel strongholds, Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, north of the crash site, which had been ”liberated” by Ukrainian forces.
Perhaps that why the rebel village of Petropavlovska was forlorn as the investigators’ convoy departed. As they do in most villages, the locals turn out to look, more than to wave, at the convoy as it slips through.
But this evening a blond woman in particular stands out in the crowd. Her face is red and she is crying as she yells after the convoy, seeming to suggest that their self-declared republic jig is up. After months of vigorous support for the separatists, most of the village stands in silence as she alludes to the forces of the Kiev government.
“When will they come to bomb us,” she cried.