Crisis in Ukraine

In the Killing Fields of Ukraine with Children Who Saw the MH17 Horror

Investigators will have a hard time explaining why the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down. But no one who saw the bodies fall will ever forget.

TOREZ, Ukraine — Blue-eyed orphan Christina Shevts, 15, stared at the empty air before her, trying to visualize again the horror she had witnessed. That day, last Thursday, at about 4:45 p.m., kids at the Torez orphanage finished their afternoon snack and walked out to play in the garden, when they heard the 777 cockpit hit the ground. And then they saw what they first thought were “big birds flying to us from the sky.” The next moment Christina and her friends ran back inside, away from what could be bombs.

For days and nights prior to the catastrophe of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the orphans had lived with the constant murmur of bombs in the middle distance. Their orphanage is not far from Saur Mogila, a strategic bit of high ground dominating the area and occupied by pro-Russian rebels. Even as I visited the orphanage on Saturday, the Ukrainian military proceeded with attacks using Grad multiple rocket launchers, which are designed, as soldiers say, to “clear a grid square” of any living thing.

But that day there were no bombs falling form the sky, or birds. They were human bodies falling all around the orphanage; two of them, a teenage Asian-looking boy and a middle-aged woman, landed in the garden under apple, apricot and cherry trees.

“I saw eight more bodies up the street that day, all of them mostly naked, falling right from the clouds on us,” said Larisa Zvereva, a teacher at the orphanage that houses 20 children. Her charges must have holy protection, she said, because not a single falling body, nor any piece of the airplane hurt the children or local people. Then Zvereva began to sob uncontrollably, remembering the wounds, the torn limbs and missing parts of bodies.

Saturday was a day of mourning in Donbass, as this eastern region of Ukraine is called. Locals arranged flowers and toys and lit candles around broken parts of the plane. Three big sunflowers were lying on the still fresh imprint of a human body in the soil in the orphanage yard.

“I want to know why that boy died,” said one of the orphans, 14-year-old Ruslan. He and the other children read the news on line to find out the true reason behind the deaths of the Malaysian Boeing’s passengers and crew. Why did almost 300 children and adults fall six miles through space, their clothes ripped away by the blast and the rush of air, until they landed on roofs, in yards, on streets and in fields?

But the truth is not easy to discover, even for the first group of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors who arrived in Donbass to investigate. Their job, clearly, is to try to provide the world with an accurate explanation of this crime. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have said in speeches that they want unimpeachable conclusions. But from the moment the OSCE team arrived at the site, it began to look doubtful the inquiry had any chance to succeed. They were met by camouflage-wearing, masked militiamen. Dozens of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs lined up on both sides of the road between the two fields still covered in airplane parts and burned and dismembered human remains, some of them belonging to little children. Dozens of black plastic bags with human bodies were arrayed along the highway.

The OSCE monitors asked if there was any chance they could speak with some expert in charge for the actions conducted on the site. The answer was, “No, our expert is busy with investigation.” Aleksei, a young DPR militiaman wearing big black sunglasses, suggested one of the OSCE members could join the DPR group and explore the field. The leader of the OSCE group, deputy chief monitor Alexander Hug, protested. He said the agreement with the self-proclaimed prime minister of the DPR, Alexander Borodai, guaranteed that all OSCE observers had a right to go everywhere they needed. “You cannot go to that territory, as our investigators have not completed their work there yet,” the militiaman said firmly, gesturing toward the field.

Another militia commander, a stout, unshaved man with a machine-gun resting on his belly who said his nickname is Ugryumy (Gloomy), agreed to take the OSCE group further up the road along the crash site. On Friday, the monitors had not been permitted to see the biggest part of the crashed airplane.

“This is the first time we are allowed to go that far,” Hug told The Daily Beast as he and his colleagues walked on the highway past the gunmen controlling the field, past the plastic bags, and the white ribbons: indicators of victims lying there. But the working atmosphere remained tense. The pro-Russian rebel militia remained sullen and hostile toward the monitors.

According to the pro-Kiev Ukrainian Crisis Media Center “terrorists,” meaning the rebels, had “illegally removed 38 bodies” from the scene of the atrocity, and the treatment of the bodies remaining on the field demonstrated the style of the militia “investigation.”

By Saturday afternoon, about 190 bodies were in plastic bags, but I could still see many human parts, and several children or pieces of children were not hidden from view. In the summer heat, the smell of decay was beginning to spread. A local man named Alexander, interviewed by the OSCE, said he did not know whose missile shot down the Boeing 777. He, too, wondered if the truth would ever be made public.

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Maybe when the Torez orphans are grown there will be a truly definitive picture of what happened. For now, even the tragedy that left many local people in shock and heartbroken has not brought on a lull in the fighting. Ukrainian warplanes and helicopters continue to fly over the area all the time, and often they bomb with little accuracy or discrimination.

On the corpse-littered fields of Donbass, there is nothing but the carnage of war, and as long as that continues, so will the chance that civilians will be slaughtered, and the blame will be passed until the world forgets about the day the bodies fell from the sky. But, of course, the orphans of Torez never will.