MH17 team’s grim search for ‘remaining remains’ in shadow of war

Posted on 16/02/2019 by

Pro Russian rebels negotiate a safe passage with OSCE mission leader Alexander Hug. Photo: Kate Geraghty A suitcase wrapped in red plastic is recovered from the MH17 crash wreckage. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Australian Federal Police and their Dutch counterparts at the MH17 crash site. Photo: Kate Geraghty

AFP MH17 site

Grabovka, Ukraine: ‘Bring ‘em home’ became more than just a slogan as Australian Federal Police teams scoured the MH17 crash site for much of Saturday, their quiet bagging of the previously overlooked remains of the victims lending the Prime Minister’s words with rare poignancy.

Previously just a quilt of fields, the site has assumed a personality; and it has its own dark moods.

Arriving ahead of the Australian and Dutch recovery teams and the rest of the media pack, we had the site to ourselves for a time.

Oddly for a place that has seen such horror, it was peaceful, even bucolic. Separatist war had raged through the night, but for now the guns were silent.

The smoke still billowing in the heavens after the guns’ exertions might have been mistaken as clouds; and a farmer herded his cattle as a gentle breeze wobbled the wheat and sunflowers.

Each visit to the wreckage reveals a detail missed previously. This time, my eye lit on a plastic economy-class coffee cup, sitting perfectly upright as though the slab of fuselage on which it sits is just another kitchen table.

Our local driver wandered into a wheat field and later reported seeing a man’s diving watch lying in the dirt – the second hand still turning.

But the site’s dark moodiness asserted itself. The Australian-Dutch recovery mission’s 20-vehicle convoy crept in from the north with its escort of rebel fighters, and while the site itself remained peaceful through the day, there was a renewed rumbling of guns – like a delinquent percussion section.

I wondered, hopefully, about any sense of comfort or peace that this operation might evince in the families and friends of the dead. Would it be more meaningful for them that after a first erratic recovery effort by the rebels and later by Ukrainian emergency services, that this one was done by ‘our’ people? Is it too soon to ask these questions?

How might they have responded on seeing the first two dogs trained to search for human remains as they scampered playfully about the site before getting down to their grim task? And would the addition of five more dogs, Dutch and Belgian, to the search on Sunday give them more hope?

How difficult might it be fore them to have observed an ambulance nosing into a field nearest to the chicken farm that has become the Dutch-led search headquarters for this part of the operation?

Then to have seen the small AFP teams moving through the fields, at times dropping to their knees, and using tongs to put their finds in specimen bags?

And later, to have seen those bags deposited in a refrigerated truck, which in the evening would head north to Kharkiv, from where its precious cargo would be airlifted to the Netherlands where a Herculean identification effort already is underway on hundreds of bodies and body parts repatriated from the crash.

And then another searing moment – members of one of the AFP teams hefted two suitcases, one of them wrapped in red plastic, onto their shoulders. Whose? Australian, surely?

Nobody was saying – just like the body parts, these cases would retain their anonymity until the formal ID process and notification of kin.

But what would family and friends made of all this? What would they think of the recovery continuing at its own pace, sometimes with just a handful in the field, as their 60 or so colleagues did who-knows-what back at the chicken farm?

These people were not trained soldiers, but they stuck to their task when, as noon approached, so too did a resumption of the encircling war; tank shells exploding smokily behind a nearby tree line and overhead, the sound of another Ukrainian fighter jet.

What might they have said to the many reformed smokers in the Dutch contingent, who are back on tobacco since having this crisis dumped in their laps? And who might they believe on an incident on which Dutch and Australian officials remained silent?

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s conflict monitors, who escort the Australian investigators and their Dutch colleagues to and from the site, said that security on Saturday was adequate and that relations with the rebel fighters were good in the vicinity of the chicken farm.

However, Alexander Hug, leader of the OSCE team, reported that incoming artillery had driven a small investigative team, which included two Australians, away from an area of wreckage near a part of the crash site that reporters have dubbed ‘the cockpit village’ rather than attempt to pronounce its name, Rassypnoe.

Mr Hug estimated that the ordinance had landed two kilometres from the team, causing it to abort its visit to a new part of the site. But Aleksandr Bayrak, one of the team’s rebel escorts, gave a more graphic account of the incident, telling us that shells had been fired from about two kilometres away, and were landing as close as 50 metres away as the three-vehicle convoy entered the village of Petropavlovska.

Sheltering under a tree on the road into the chicken farm, as much from the sun as the jet, presumably Ukrainian, still prowling overhead, he said: “We stopped on the spot. We pulled your people from the cars and escorted them to a local basement. We were pinned down for maybe 40 minutes. Some of them were so worried; they were holding their heads. Then they asked us to take them to the chicken farm”.

How would the families and friends assess the indefatigable Mr Hug who by mid-afternoon was again poring over maps spread on the bonnet of a car, with his rebel counterparts. With the rumble of incoming shelling still rolling in from nearby Petropavlovska, he needed to confirm a secure route by which to extract the investigators back to their new base at Soledar, 95 kilometres north of the crash site.

Huge plumes of smoke could be seen rising from Petropavlovska, about five kilometres to the north. But the 20-vehicle convoy’s return to Soledar was incident free – save for negotiating steel planks across a fractured bridge that 24 hours earlier had been in sound condition.

The locals have been curiously absent from this whole exercise. So what might the families and friends have made of the appearance around noon, of a local priest leading a procession of about 50, mostly women, in a prayer service next to the charred remains of the engines of MH17?

Clutching flowers and with heads covered, they gathered by a roadside crucifix where the gold-robed priest led prayers and hymns for the dead passengers and crew as they worshiped in their own little cloud of burning incense.

The priest, Father Sergiy Barahtenko, told us that the service was for “all the dead – our dead and your dead”. Showing rare courage for a spiritual leader in a time of war, he exhorted his followers: “This war is awful – it must be stopped. But we cannot take up arms, we have to stop it with prayers”.

With such a priestly admonition ringing in the ears of locals, perhaps Saturday was the right day for the OSCE to attempt a word-of-mouth campaign to have villagers return items looted from the crash site.

An OSCE official asked rebel fighters to spread the word, that stolen property should be bagged and left where it could be collected in their community – no questions asked. What would the families and friends make of that?

But what hope can there be when all that remains is body parts? When all that will come home from these fields is what one of the Australian contingent referred to as “the remaining remains”.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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