MH17 victims lie in train of the dead
A 'train of the dead' sits in a dilapidated eastern Ukraine station, its reeking carriages packed with 200 numbered and tagged bags containing human remains from the MH17 crash site.
On Sunday evening (local time) the Soviet-era train stood in a siding in the railway station of the rebel-controlled industrial town of Torez, its operators waiting for instructions, its engines chugging to power the refrigeration units cooling the bodies.
But the stench of the remains, which spent more than two days in warm, humid conditions in Ukrainian fields under occasionally thundery skies, was "absolutely overwhelming", said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for OSCE's monitoring mission to Ukraine.
The bodies came by truck from the crash site on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, according to local and Ukraine government sources.
Some had been collected by Ukraine emergency workers, some by local volunteers including coalmine workers, and around 36 had been collected on Friday and later returned by separatists - possibly from the Donetsk morgue.
Three refrigerated cars contained tagged and numbered body bags, many of them intact but some torn, exposing the contents, Bociurkiw said.
"Because of the conditions they were in you need professional protective equipment to go in there, the stench was absolutely overwhelming," Bociurkiw said. "I don't want to be too gruesome but it's a very, very difficult scene to watch.
"Most of the body bags were intact - you could see some body parts visible, slightly torn but on the whole they were intact, but most crucially there is refrigeration finally because today is another quite warm day in this area."
The train contained 192 bodies of the victims, plus 8 fragments of the bodies, Volodymyr Groysman, vice prime minister of Ukraine and head of the MH17 crash taskforce told journalists on Sunday afternoon. But he could not say when this train would leave the station, or identify a destination.
"As of today we are conducting dialogue for letting the train go and for the train to be dispatched and for the train to reach the destination for forensic examination and all the necessary expert operations," he said.
The area around the train station is under the control of the pro-Russian separatist, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
Groysman said representatives of Ukraine's Ministry of Emergency had been allowed to load the bodies onto the train "under the control of gunmen" on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, after being prevented on Friday from doing so by the gunmen from the militia controlling the area.
He said the train's destination was yet to be settled. It will be the result of a delicate negotiation between the local militia, Ukraine, and the international forensic teams ready to receive them. "At this point we haven't yet received any opportunity to dispatch the train," he said.
Bociurkiw said the locals on the scene had told him there were no plans to send the train on its way.
"They were wondering when experts will be arriving to start processing the bodies," he said. "The thinking is that the cars should be taken to Ukrainian controlled territory such as Kharkiv and they can be processed there.
"I don't think they have the facilities [at the station] to do proper body processing. It's a very gruesome task."
The people he spoke to - from the station and from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic that controls the area - were waiting for experts from the Netherlands, Malaysia and other countries who have sent emergency response teams to Ukraine.
It's understood that Australian forensic experts have also joined the international taskforce in Ukraine, ready for the task of identifying and repatriating the bodies.
Kees van Baar, a member of the Dutch team that leads the forensic operation, said once the bodies were released they would be met by a team of international experts and each would be identified, either in Ukraine or elsewhere.
He said that one acceptable option was Kharkiv, a city a few hours to the north of rebel-controlled Donetsk, in Ukraine-controlled territory.
Ukraine government spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Kharkiv was ready to receive the bodies. "We have everything in Kharkiv, experts from international organisations and from Ukraine," he said. "They have all the facilities ready for all the forensic investigation and examination. "If the train is dispatched and arrives we are prepared to receive it."
Meanwhile at the crash site, which covers almost 34 square kilometres including several villages and a lake, another 27 bodies and 20 fragments of bodies were found on Sunday. These were being kept in a "special refrigerator" and would be loaded onto a later train, Groysman said.
This brought the total recovered so far to 219 bodies and 28 fragments. There were 298 people on board MH17.
Hundreds of emergency officials from Ukraine were combing the site on Sunday, attempting to locate and identify bodies. A team of 20 Ukraine divers were searching a lake within the crash zone.
Bociurkiw said some of the bodies of people on the plane may have been 'vapourised', because the part of the crash zone where the plane's engines had landed had been subjected to intense heat. "I don't know if there's anything there that resembles a body," he said.
In parallel with body recovery and identification, another international taskforce is ready to begin examination of the crash site to determine the cause of the tragedy.
However Groysman said his government could not guarantee their safety at the crash site. It was a matter for each country to decide whether it would dispatch their teams to the site - Ukraine would deliver them to the edge of the rebel-held territory, but could not vouch for them after that.
Groysman said: "Access is blocked, safe access to the crash site is blocked. It's done on purpose. The best international experts are prepared to identify to go to the site but they are not admitted, why?"
On Sunday afternoon a video was published by Reuters, reportedly recorded on Friday, showing rescue workers at the crash site recovering what appeared to be a black box flight recorder from the wreckage of MH17.
The footage was recorded in a wheat field in the village of Hrabove. Ukraine Ministry of Emergency searchers found an orange-coloured flight data recorder and handed it to a colleague.
Separatist leader Aleksander Borodai claimed on Sunday that his men were keeping the black boxes in Donetsk.
"There are no specialists among us who could pinpoint the look of the black boxes, but we brought to Donetsk some technical items which could be the black boxes of the airliner," he told reporters.
Sydney Morning Herald