Saturday, 18 July 2015

MH17 dead honoured in Eastern Ukraine

Late in the afternoon of July 17 last year, Marina Volkova was nearly killed by a dead body.

Her husband, Yevgenny, a miner, was watching television and she was on the computer when two powerful blasts reverberated through their home in the village of Rosipnoye, Ukraine.

In the context of war, the explosions did not come as much of a surprise. Knowing that combat aircraft had been operation in the region, she assumed the village had come under attack.

"We'd already spoken about what to do," she told The Daily Telegraph a few days later. "So we dashed across the yard to the cellar."

It was then, as she opened the door of the house, that something crashed into the yard.

It was the body of a woman. They still do not know her identity.

Almost everyone in the villages of Rosipnoye, Grabovo, and Petropavlivka has similarly horrific memories of the moment Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was destroyed 10,000 metres above their homes exactly a year ago.

But for many, July 17 2014 was just one particularly dark day in a nightmarish war.

The war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists has now killed more than 6,000 people. The grim reality, as Mrs Volkova put it last week, is that people were already living in fear when MH17 crashed, and they continued to do so for months afterwards.

Shortly after the disaster, the war washed over the crash site like a tide, leaving shell holes and bits of rocket scattered amongst the chunks of fuselage, airline seats, and personal effects that remained here for months before being moved.

Compared to other towns, Grabovo got it "relatively light," said Vladimir Berezhnoi, the local mayor, talking about the war as one would the weather. "We were only in our basements for a couple of nights."

The war has now retreated. Rebel gains over winter pushed the front so far away that you can now visit the crash site without seeing a single soldier, and the locals are making a stab at returning to normal.

But the approach of the anniversary brought back memories that many had repressed.

"I didn't sleep for nights, and it wasn't because I was busy," Mr Berezhnoi said last week as he recalled last summer. "I had never seen anything like that - bodies, bits of bodies, hands, legs, heads - and I never want to again."

"The smell is still there - not so much the bodies, but definitely still the fuel. And we still find bits. Bits of plane, bits of people," he said.

Eight lorries of such "fragments" have been dispatched to the Netherlands in the months since, he said. Many more likely remain in the earth.

For Mr Berezhnoi, who says villages have voluntarily brought in money, laptops, and phones found around the crash site, the reports of looting that circulated at the time were both offensive and confusing.

"It was a surprising thing to read. How could we have done? The soldiers set up checkpoints on both ends of the road straight away. We couldn't even get to the site."

"I think the Dutch didn't believe those stories, because the last time they were here the investigators offered everyone in the village humanitarian assistance," he said.

In fact, says Mr Berezhnoi, the tragedy and the war have in many ways brought out the best in people.

"We have a saying: tragedy brings people together. Before the war, if I tried to organize a subbotnik, or voluntary clean up, I'd get 15 or 20 people at most. When a shell made a big crater in the road I just had to say the word and hundred people showed up to help," he said.

Much as the recovery effort fell to the locals, so too has the business of remembrance.

Each village was holding a memorial service Friday - a modest attempt to honour the foreign dead.

And the villagers have also raised the only monuments to the disaster.

In Grabovo, the road-side cross that greets travellers entering the village has taken on the role of a shrine. Its traditional inscription of "save and protect" assuming a new, more sombre meaning since the centre section of MH17 fell in an inferno of black smoke and flame in the meadow across the road.

One of the few relatives of the dead to make the difficult journey here has left photographs of a victim pinned to it. The locals maintain a wreath there.

It is a fact lost on few that Grabovo itself escaped destruction by a margin of a little over 10 metres - a strange stroke of fate that Mr Berezhnoi thinks the village priest may find worth mentioning in his memorial sermon.

Across the road, on a telegraph pole next to the still charred earth of the centre-section fire, someone has affixed a placard with a poem of remembrance.

A new memorial at Grabovo, funded by donations from across the region, was unvieled at a ceremony attended by representatives of the separatist government on Friday.

At Rosipnoye, an Orthodox cross has been raised on the spot where the cockpit ploughed into a sunflower field.

A modest flower bed is arranged at its foot, and in front of it have been placed two tiny plastic hinges with American serial numbers - the kind of wreckage that can still be found in any garden or field in the area.

Mrs Volkova, who planned to lay flowers from her garden at the site, says she would like to see something more permanent.

At the Volkova's house, 100 yards away, the roof destroyed by the falling corpse has been repaired and the window that it hit bricked up.

Under the same eaves, a family of house martins has built a nest - a sign for good fortune for a house in Russia and Ukraine, and in many ways the very opposite of the tragedy that occurred here a year ago.

"They say that's a good sign," said Mrs Volkova. "So we're hopeful."

Saturday 18 July 2015


Post a Comment