MH17 and its aftermath will forever torment

People walk amid the crash wreckage on Tuesday.
People walk amid the crash wreckage on Tuesday.

It’s the train, not the plane.

Early on Thursday evening, I paused in a thicket near this farm village, still trying to wrap my head around the missile strike that shredded Malaysia Airways flight MH17 at an altitude of about 10,000 metres, raining broken bodies, crumpled baggage and jagged aircraft debris over miles of fields of ripened wheat and sunflower.

What happened in the air is too horrible to contemplate.

 Vlad, 10, on Thursday looks for wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that fell near his family's home.
Vlad, 10, on Thursday looks for wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that fell near his family's home.

Gone is 10-year-old Miguel Calehr, who seemingly had a premonition of what was in store as he and an older brother packed to go to Bali, to visit their grandmother. As his mother farewelled him at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Miguel wrapped her in his small arms, asking: ‘‘what’ll happen if the airplane crashes?’’

Gone is the doting and very capable Perth grandfather, Nick Norris who had shepherded his three grandkids – Mo, 12; Evie, 10 and Otis, 8 – to Europe, and through no fault of his own, only a part of the way back. Apparently the 67-year-old had joked about daring to fly Malaysia so soon after the disappearance off the Perth coast of the airline’s MH370 service – with all 239 passenger and crew on board now presumed dead.

Gone is the peripatetic Dutch AIDS researcher, 59-year-old Joep Lange who, as his last text stated, was so "superbusy", that fear or blackish humour probably were not on his mind. He and his communications director partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, 64, were travelling to an AIDS conference in Melbourne, but the professor was such a frequent traveller that the colleague who received that last text, exclaimed: ‘‘I didn’t even wish him a safe flight.’’

What’s been happening on the ground, here and for miles around, moves me part of the way towards comprehension.

Thursday is day seven and I’m in the thicket because this is where a hunk of the Boeing 777’s fuselage crashed to earth last Thursday, its windows intact and its blue and red Malaysia Airways livery catching the evening sun. But it was not discovered till earlier this Thursday when an investigation team that included the first Australian officials to visit the sprawling crash scene, chanced upon it.

Each piece of wreckage, and its attendant apron of passengers’ personal effects, is wrenching – most of all, the empty seats in which passengers sat and the in-flight blankets in which they wrapped themselves.

Not quite 10 kilometres away is the cockpit – in which one of the pilots, still in his uniform, was found strapped to his seat. But accounts by locals, of naked human bodies falling in their field and gardens – and in the case of one woman, through the roof of her home – steer me back to incomprehension. And less than one kilometre away, is the aftermath of an inferno ignited by the impact of one of the Boeing 777’s engines, in which the heat was so intense that it melted the aircraft’s 17-year-old aluminum skin.

But all these are bits of a whole that the mind is reluctant to re-assemble as the slice of life that was flight MH17. Children’s stuffed toys and games; the bottles of Famous Grouse whiskey still in their duty-free sleeves; easy-reading airport thrillers and sports biographies that were packed to amuse, all say don’t go there.

During a visit to the crash site late on Sunday the wind flapped the blank pages of an exercise book, revealing a cover page on which a young hand’s decorative writing had been washed out by a shower of rain. It read as "this book belongs to Marnix", but because I’ve never heard the name, I figure that the rain has rendered an original effort to be illegible. But writing this piece four days later, I pause to do a Google search – and I’m shocked to find that a 12-year-old Marnix was one of a Melbourne migrant family of five who died – his parents, Shaliza Dewa and Hans van den Hende, both 45, a brother Piers, 15, and a sister Margaux, 8.

It’s only when I drive 15 kilometres from the crash site, to a small town called Torez, that reality strikes – like a sledgehammer.

This is where, initially in secret, the separatist rebels who control this whole swathe of eastern Ukraine had been collecting and storing the victim’s bodies – and finally, on Monday morning, they were making them available for inspection by conflict monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The OSCE team and a bunch of reporters are on the platform at the railway station when a rail employee steps forward to open one of the refrigerated rail wagons – she is dressed in a skin-tight, black skirt that shimmered in the sun, a body-hugging white shirt and striking wedge heels, with purple straps. But her statement of Torez fashion is forgotten as the heavy, metal door slides open...

The stench of decayed flesh that floods from the dark interior is nauseating – those who did not come with a face mask snatch at lose sections of clothing to cover their faces.

Stare into the wagon’s darkness for a bit and the body bags reveal themselves.

The rebels finally agree to release the train and I shadow its journey, a five-hour drive around broken bridges and through tetchy rebel checkpoints, north to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second- biggest city.

The rebels and the Kiev government had assured the governments of 10 countries that all 298 passengers and crew had more or less been accounted for in the bodies and the body parts stored on the train.

But when the Dutch officials who have taken charge of the international investigation examined the train in Kharkiv, they estimated that there were only 200 bodies – that as many as 100 might still be missing.

Their point was well made on Thursday when the OSCE team gave three Australian officials a tour of three sections of the crash site – they came upon human remains as I did on Thursday evening.

The creaking old Soviet-era train defines this crisis for me.

It’s everything that flight MH17 wasn’t. The fun of that near time-machine sense of modern aviation, hundreds of people packed into a metal bullet that hurtles through thin air; having a dinky little meal or a snooze, head on a loved-one’s shoulder; a drink and a movie; is one of the status symbols of our time.

Sadly, so too is being packed anonymously into a blood-soaked body bag as it sits on a train with no destination and no departure time.

The scene on the Torez platform was illuminating too. The OCSE team feels obliged to be deferential to the masked bandits who are the separatists, because they have guns and dogs on chains and some of them wear masks.

But given the indignity of a combination of the separatists controlling access to the crash site, as a result of which many of the victim’s bodies lie in the hot sun for days, and the collective inertia of governments in the face of the separatists’ firepower, I’m struck by the fragility of social cohesion these days.

These guys have guns and they hold their gaze as they make threats and they seem to get away with it because there is enough support for them in the local community.

They have been able to fill a local vacuum left by a poor-performing national government in a region where a powerful neighbour like Moscow uses them as a plaything.

As the separatists wield their guns nobody seemed to ask seriously what was the point of their power pantomime. Why did movement by the unarmed OSCE monitors, representing 57 governments, have to be controlled at gunpoint?

If it was about protecting them, from whom – the media, which was the only other substantive force moving in the immediate area?

Washington seemed to have let Russian President Vladimir Putin off the hook – by announcing that he was not directly linked to a rebel missile strike that brought down MH17, in the apparent belief by the rebels that it was a Ukrainian military transport.

And while the US charges that Moscow has armed and encouraged the separatists, Putin will chortle – wasn’t that the kind of stuff that had been in the US foreign policy tool kit for decades?

We have yet to see if the disaster is to be a circuit breaker in the separatist war that threatens to tear Ukraine apart. The bolshieness of the rebels shooting down two more Ukrainian jet fighters this week and Putin’s failure to find the right words or deeds to have them accept that the MH17 debacle means that the separatist venture should go on hold, suggests not.

The next point at which Putin’s resolve will be tested will come with any decision by the EU to overcome its own anxiety about its reliance on gas imports from Russia and to whack a garland of effective economic sanctions around the Russian leader’s neck and his pocketbook.

There are shades of 9/11 in this crisis – hundreds of people from "our" world, minding their own business as they glide over an off-the-radar conflict; and suddenly they are blown out of the sky and dropped into the middle of it – and the rest of us along with them.

Australia’s success in getting a unanimous vote at the UN Security Council for an international investigation into the downing of the Malaysian aircraft was easy, compared with what lies ahead.

When I spoke to Tony Abbott’s MH17 special envoy, former military chief Angus Houston, as the first bodies were airlifted from Kharkiv, he laid out a hugely ambitious wish-list for Canberra – quite apart from the challenge of securing what he describes as a 50 square kilometre site, he said: ‘‘We must recover all body parts and we need to go over the whole site and get every personal effect – we owe this to the families.

‘‘Also, every last bit of wreckage – each bit, you know, indicates something to the eye of a trained investigator and hopefully it will produce evidence that’ll stand up in court and that it will lead to people being held accountable.’’

All that, even with the help of allies, is a bit more daunting than getting up the Security Council motion. But it too pales against the challenges in using the Security Council decision as a vehicle to hold to account those who were responsible for the missile strike.

Watch Moscow and its allies at the UN not so much block, as bog down the whole process.

How long did it take to get justice in the Lockerbie? Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed in 1988, killing all 259 people onboard; it was 1999 before the now deposed and murdered Muammar Gaddafi handed over the suspects; and it was 2003 before Gaddafi personally accepted responsibility, and agreed to compensate the victim families.

Do we all have the stamina for that kind of marathon effort in the MH17 case?

A powerful evidentiary trail exists – when the Kiev government recently began to whip the separatists, Moscow sent weapons and munitions; the rebels became adept at missile strikes on aircraft, at high and low altitudes; if they are genuine, there are phone intercepts that show them gloating, about the time MH17 was hit, of successfully taking out a Ukranian military transport; of them realising the error; and then trying to cover the traces.

There are numerous accounts of a BUK missile system seen in the area on the day the aircraft was hit and there’s imagery, if it proves to be ridgy-didge, of the system being spirited over the border – with a single missile missing from its storage frames.

The rebels are countering already, that the Ukraine national army has the BUK system; and Moscow is claiming that a Ukranian jet fighter was in the area on the day in question – and we know that that could be true because on Tuesday of this week, the rebels brought down two of them, within 50 kilometres of the crash site.

The week has been an ugly revelation about mankind. That the bodies of so many people could be left broiling in the sun for no good reason and that none of the power pivots in the world could release them was, ...well, you choose – despicable, disgusting, depraved etc.

Similarly with the stories of the looting of the personal belongings of the victims, though I suspect many of them will be proved to have been part of a propaganda campaign by the Kiev government or its external spin-doctors.

It does seem that some of the victims’ mobile phones are being used; but claims that their credit cards were being presented for transactions seems flimsy.

And when a video compilation on looting went viral, someone took the time to deconstruct it – demonstrating that the claim that rebels were stealing children’s stuffed toys was not true – a rebel fighter had merely held up the toy (which I saw on the ground a day after the video went out) for a photographer, before blessing himself as a mark of respect for the dead; the snippet of video used to allege that a wedding ring had been stolen did not stand up when the whole video was viewed – but by then a Dutch diplomat had used the allegation as the basis for a passionate speech at the UN.

It’s not surprising then, that I saw stray dogs running away from, not to the crash site.

And same with the nearby fields that are filled with sunflowers – they’re all facing the other direction, these usually so-happy plants have turned away in disgust.

Sydney Morning Herald