Inside the Battle to Crush Ukraine’s Rebel Capital as Dutch Search for MH17 Clues

Fighting raged in the center of Donetsk on Monday as Dutch investigators examined the MH17 bodies.

Konstantin Cherginsky/Reuters

DONETSK, Ukraine — Heavy fighting broke out in downtown Donetsk, the industrial capital of eastern Ukraine, at about 10:00 this morning. Much of the combat centered on the Zapadnaya railway and bus stations. Rebels blocked the roads. Constant artillery blasts could be heard in the residential area around the station.

At almost the same moment, Dutch experts arrived in war-torn eastern Ukraine to investigate the MH17 catastrophe, but managed to make their way towards the crash scene to examine the victims' bodies.

Clearly, all of the statements from Moscow and Kiev about a cease-fire for the period of the investigation have been forgotten. Rebels reinforced their positions in Donetsk, bringing tanks and armored personnel carriers closer to the railway station on Panfilova Avenue. Glass was blown out of the windows of five-story buildings on Slavatskaya Street. Local radio reported that the Ukrainian military blew up railroad tracks and blocked approaches to the city.

Once again civilians paid the price of this ferocious war. Shells killed pedestrians running to try to escape into basements. A young woman's body was lying on the dusty road by a row of garages: Her head was destroyed, and both of her shoes had been thrown in the air by the shock wave of the explosion and had landed a few steps away from her motionless body.

A lost-looking young man waved to us from under the trees in the next courtyard. He pointed at two more bodies: dead civilian men. “What to do with them?” he shouted. “Flies will cover the bodies. It is very hot.”

The young man said his name was Yuriy Malkov, and he was trying to get back to his wife, who was alone and terrified. “I could hear the sound of five mortar shots in the direction of my apartment building and could not wait to see how she was,” he said. “I called her on the phone—she was safe, but she is hiding in the basement of our burning building right now.”

We ran together across the deserted streets and yards.

The city’s basements were full of people. About 70 civilians, little children as well as adults, were hiding in a deep cellar of Public School No. 51. Some women cried out in shock, growing hysterical. “Bombing is fine—let the Ukrainian army cleanse this city, like they cleansed Sloviansk, where peaceful life immediately returned,” said a suntanned woman in a black T-shirt who was screaming at the top of her lungs.

Not everybody agreed with her. In Donbass, it’s not only bombs but opinions that tear people apart.

“The Ukrainian army will just murder us, they are murderers!” shouted a young woman in a colorful summer dress. “Kiev never bothered to respect us, to ask us about what life we really wanted.” Her features betrayed her terror.

Many of the people in the basements were growing painfully thirsty, but they dared not leave. They talked of “death being so close, right outside the door.”

Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko commanded his military to proceed with its “anti-terror operations” in Donetsk and other regions controlled by separatists. After the rebels lost their stronghold Sloviansk, a small but strategically located city that was the epicenter of their operations, they fell back on Donetsk, which may be one of their last major redoubts.

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Despite what those of us in the city could see and hear, the Ukrainian government insisted today that its troops were not fighting in the city center. “There is work on clearing approaches to the city, on destroying checkpoints of the terrorists,” Andrey Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, told a news conference on Monday. “If there are explosions in the middle of the city—then it is not Ukrainian soldiers.”

Meanwhile, back in Torez, near the scene of the MH17 crash, the Dutch experts examined the bodies of the victims in refrigerated railcars and told the press that the bodies were kept in good condition. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said that Ukraine was ready to give The Netherlands the right to coordinate the investigation of the MH17 tragedy. Almost 200 Dutch citizens died on the plane. Almost 300 people were killed altogether when a missile blasted the commercial airliner out of the sky.

On Monday afternoon loud mortar and Grad rocket blasts could be head around the outskirts of Donetsk as the Dutch experts sealed the refrigerator railcars full of MH17 victims, preparing to transport the bodies out of the Donetsk region by Monday evening.

Whether they will be able to pass over the contested railway is, at this point, an open question.