Personal Effects

As Dutch authorities release their report on the downing of MH17, the crash site remains unprotected and the locals are still in denial.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

HRABOVE, Ukraine — As Dutch investigators announced preliminary findings about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the remains of the aircraft and the belongings of the 298 people who died onboard lay forlorn and exposed in the rainy fields of eastern Ukraine. Far from being treated as the sealed-off evidence in the investigation of a major international crime, they remain at the mercy of the weather, rough-handed rebels, and Grad rocket fire.

A rebel fighter in Rozsypne who goes by the nom de guerre Fuss dragged out sections of fuselage emblazoned with the red and blue stripes of Malaysia Airlines to show journalists holes in the metal. "We’re no experts, but everyone saw there was a second plane, a Su [Sukhoi fighter jet]," Fuss said, suggesting that the Ukrainian Air Force had brought down the plane, rather than a rebel-fired missile, as most Western observers suspect.

In fields outside the tiny village of Hrabove, luggage remains strewn around the crash site, including half-burned books teaching French and Tagalog, a decorative clog from the Henri Willig cheese farm in the Netherlands, a miniature replica of a London phone booth, and a broken bike frame and wheel. The traces of the 80 children who died on the flight are impossible to ignore: a toy car, two young adult novels, a half filled-in alphabet book, a teddy bear.

Checkpoints controlled by motley rebel groups of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic dot the road to Hrabove, where the largest section of wreckage lies on ground that is still black and charred nearly two months after the catastrophe. The road near the site is pockmarked with shell craters and occasionally blocked by branches blasted from the trees, signs of intensive fighting between the pro-Russian rebels and government forces in recent weeks. As if in anticipation of more shelling, one rebel was digging a new foxhole at a checkpoint in the town of Petropavlivka.

Another fighter near wreckage in the town of Rozsypne said their post had been shelled on Friday, hours before the start of a cease-fire that has since fallen apart. On Tuesday, Sept. 9, several journalists were trapped in an artillery shootout between the cities of Khartsyzk and Makiivka to the east of Donetsk, on the way back from the crash site, and were forced to wait in a line of cars as shells whistled overhead. In Hrabove, which is about halfway between Donetsk and the other major rebel stronghold of Luhansk, a huge crater with the remains of what appeared to be a Grad rocket marred a field only yards from parts of the plane’s engines.

But locals near the crash site said they doubted the Dutch report was fair and were sure the government in Kiev was to blame for the disaster. Alexander Semenchenko, who had come to Hrabove from the nearby city of Torez to fetch water, said he had been driving on a nearby road when the plane fell. After hearing a loud boom, he stopped his car and dropped to the ground next to it. "Then I looked up and saw the debris coming down, and I heard the noise of a second plane leaving," he said. "I’m 100 percent sure there was a second plane." Semenchenko admitted he considers Russian television to be "closer to the truth" than Ukrainian and Western media and gets his news mostly from local pro-Russian websites.

Since MH17 went down on July 17, Russian state-owned television has aired a variety of conspiracy theories about what caused the crash. Some news outlets have even speculated that the CIA took the Malaysia Airlines plane that went missing over the Indian Ocean, filled it with corpses and crashed it in Ukraine to discredit Moscow. Russian television has also given significant coverage to arguments by the Kremlin’s Defense Ministry that a Ukrainian ground-attack fighter jet had been flying in the area. A July poll found that 82 percent of Russians blame Ukrainian forces for downing the plane.

The Russian media continues to blame everyone but the rebels, despite the mounting evidence of a Buk missile strike from territory held by pro-Russian separatists. On Tuesday, several news outlets carried a story with Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, denying they had weapons that could have shot down the Malaysian airliner.

An investigation released on Sept. 9 by Bellingcat, a project started by the well-known open-source weapons analyst Eliot Higgins, argued a Buk missile operated by the Russian 53rd missile brigade had likely shot down the flight. The Dutch Safety Board’s finding that "high-energy objects" penetrated the cockpit is consistent with a fragmentation warhead, such as the one carried by the Buk anti-aircraft missile that journalists saw in the area hours before the plane fell.

But in comments to state-owned radio station Voice of Russia that were quickly picked up by numerous other media, Oleg Matveichev, a former advisor to Vladimir Putin who is now a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, accused the Dutch-led investigation of a cover-up.

"Someone has been conducting this investigation for almost two months, and this abnormally long period of time shows that people probably didn’t want to reveal materials to the wider public, but rather wanted to hide something," Matveichev said. "I even get the impression that this commission was just attempting to pressure some people so they would change their opinion or falsify evidence."

The Dutch report is unlikely to change many opinions in eastern Ukraine and Russia, where many blame the Ukrainians categorically. Still, they say they are saddened by the loss of life. Unknown well-wishers had laid a traditional Ukrainian funeral wreath at the base of a cross standing at the entrance to Hrabove. "To the victims of the air catastrophe, from the residents of the city of Torez," it read.

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn