I Was Snatched at the MH17 ‘Morgue’

Reporters were arrested by rebels anxious to impress them with their anger—and their blades.

Genya Savilov/Getty

DONETSK, Ukraine — An hour had passed by since our detention; we still did not know if we, two female writers and one male writer from American and European publications, were doomed to spend our Sunday and who knows how many more days in jail.

Our interrogators, a group of militiamen from the security service of the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, as it’s known, wanted to tell us why America is to blame for the civil war tearing apart town after town in Donbass, the eastern Ukraine.

The rebels are not alone in these beliefs. Many people in pro-Russian Donbass are convinced that the United States orchestrated the anti-Russian revolution in Kiev, supported Ukrainian military forces fighting the war against pro-Russian separatist troops; and now it is America accusing them of shooting down the Malaysian Boeing 777 on Thursday that cost the lives of almost 300 innocent people.

For four days, the militia of the self-proclaimed republic has been collecting “evidence” to prove that it was a Ukrainian missile that shot down the plane, so that the world would believe them, they told us. But, the rebels wondered aloud: Where were the Americans? Why didn’t they come to Donetsk to see for themselves? Then the rebels answered their own questions: “Because America hates us.”We waited in the courtyard of the massive, solidly barricaded complex of the Ukraine Security Service, the SBU, now controlled by DNR forces. The building is a base for hundreds of edgy militia: deeply traumatized escapees from the recently fallen city of Sloviansk, the former stronghold and heart of the rebel resistance.

We were put on a bench surrounded by five gunmen trying to decide our fate. Their bearded commander’s half-closed eyes suggested increasing anger as he described the horrors of war in his home town of Sloviansk and accused biased American journalists for his pain. They were “paid for telling lies” about the real causes and consequences of the war destroying civilians homes and lives, he said. “An American bomb leveled my own house,” he said, turning pages in the American passport of my colleague, Time magazine correspondent Simon Shuster.

Earlier that day, we had gone to the Donetsk city morgue looking for bodies from the Flight MH17 catastrophe that had been collected from the site of the crash. Two gunmen waiting outside the morgue ordered us to follow them as soon as we got out of our taxi. “Get in the car,” said one of them, pointing at a Lada, after checking our documents.

Later we learned that he, a 20-year-old rebel sniper, was a student who dreamed of becoming a teacher, but now he was following orders. He said he had been commanded to grab every journalist showing up at the morgue. Journalists weren't to poke around among the bodies.

Now five of his militia comrades, aged from 20 to 48, stood around our bench and breathed hatred, speaking of their thirst for revenge as they talked about “pro-American Kiev” sending well-equipped forces to kill them. They told us that the war had gone too far: “Imagine how many people in Luhansk, Snezhnoye, Sloviansk and many other towns in Donbass dream of bombing Kiev or Lviv, so they would pay for the deaths of our loved ones,” the bearded commander told me. Then the militia took Shuster away, inside the prison—he was arrested.

More camouflaged gunmen approached. Their weatherbeaten faces seemed to carry prints of desperate lives. Earlier this month, the friendliest of them, 31-year-old Denis, told us they were given very short notice to evacuate Sloviansk. Denis rushed to collect eight members of his family who had been hiding in a basement for a month, and drove them away from the quickly advancing and attacking Ukrainian forces, escaping along a “humanitarian corridor” across the border to the Russian city of Rostov.

Tears fill Denis’ eyes as he shared the memories: “One night I heard knocking at the door: a man and a woman in their mid 70s were standing behind it; she had a nightgown on, he just pajamas, they were both bleeding.”

Another militiaman, a tall, bearded gunman in the group crowded around us, spoke about his knife with a Caucasus accent; then he proudly showed us the shiny steel of the blade. Soon enough, other knives were drawn and passed from hand to hand—the rebels were comparing the lengths of their blades, in front of us, their captives. One of them stared at my Italian colleague, Lucia Sgueglia, and wondered aloud how long it would take her to teach him the Italian language, suggesting she would be kept in detention until he was satisfied.

Reporters from Russia Today, the Russian government English-language television station, walked out of jail while we were there. The cameraman, Anton, had spent the night in a single cell without any chance to let his station know where he was. That Russia Today is loyal to the Kremlin didn’t seem to matter.

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Later in the day, after all of us were released, including Simon Shuster and a detained BBC crew, we attended a press conference by the DNR prime minister, Alexander Borodai, who said he had something to tell us about the Flight MH17 catastrophe investigation.

Anton, from Russia Today, asked Borodai why he had to spend a night in the SBU jail. Anton said that while he was in there he saw 50 detainees who had been waiting for days to have their cases heard. Borodai just joked: “If you have not spent a night at SBU, you are not a real journalist.”The rebel official told us that he never tried to limit access for international observers and investigators to Donbass and the crash site. In a way, he was in a situation to the detainees Anton asked him about—nobody was coming to hear his truth. For four days, he said, he had been expecting professional international investigators to arrive in Donetsk to look at the fragments of the plane and “boxes” his militia collected on the site of the airplane crash.

Borodai insisted that the victims’ bodies are being kept in refrigerated train cars in the town of Terez, and not in the morgue as many of us had thought. He said all the “needed material” for the investigation was waiting for Western professionals. But Kiev, according to Borodai’s theory, deliberately did not let them come, claiming there were safety issues. Borodai appealed to the press, asking reporters to help him build direct contacts with international experts, and make the case for a visit. For once, we seemed to be needed here.