A few hundred witnesses of the Malaysia Airlines airplane shot out of the air last July were standing around a recently raised memorial to the victims. Nobody spoke much; most participants sincerely grieved over the victims, heartbroken by the memories of the victims, which some said still stand before their eyes. Some people came to the ceremony carrying Orthodox flags, others brought flowers and balloons. People were waiting for the rebel leaders to arrive and open the commemoration ceremony.
The high officials of the self-proclaimed rebel “republic”—armed, rich and Kremlin-backed men—were almost two hours late. The participants, especially the young and old, were getting tired of standing in the sun. Some complained about the delay but not many walked away from what organizers called a requiem. Armed militants lined up behind flags flying for the 10 home countries of 298 passengers killed a year ago today, where families were also waiting to hear who was to blame for the deaths of their children, wives, husbands and other loved ones.
Finally, two shiny Toyota land cruisers and one Lexus parked by the crowd. More soldiers with machine guns guarded a pale, limping man with a cane, the “Donetsk People’s Republic” president, Oleksandr Zakharchenko. Next to him walked an overweight man in an expensive suit, Denis Pushilin (known in Donetsk as “DPR’s man in Moscow”).
Who shot down the Boeing? The mystery was not solved at the ceremony on Friday. “We did not have and we do not have weapons that could shoot that plane down,” Zakharchenko told reporters. The airplane broke apart over these fields and villages, for that the Kremlin, Zakharchenko, and other rebels blamed the Ukrainian government. Zakharchenko promised to provide security for relatives who might want to visit the crash site, but none showed up Friday.
Dutch investigators reportedly concluded a missile shot from rebel controlled territory brought the plane down. Both Ukraine and Netherlands called to create a United Nations tribunal to find justice. Seventeen families of victims filed a $900 million lawsuit against Igor Girkin also known as Igor Strelkov. Both Pushilin and Zakharchenko were allied last summer with Strelkov, a former Russian Federal Security Service officer, and commander of rebel forces at the time, who escaped from east Ukraine—to Moscow—after the plane was downed.
The search for justice did not seem to interest the rebels on the ground. During the memorial service, first by an Orthodox priest and then by an Imam, Zakharchenko and Pushilin did not stop chatting between themselves, occasionally grinning to each other’s comments. A top Kremlin official, Vladislav Surkov, arrived in Donetsk to shuffle the rebel government, according to one senior rebel commander, who uses a nickname, Mamai.
Was Strelkov to blame for shooting down the Boeing? A rare participant in the crowd wanted to discuss the mystery today. ”We hate political questions, we suffer enough here,” a grandmother in a scarf named Galina Ivanovna said, talking about the horror of the day one year ago,when human remains rained down on people’s streets, gardens and roofs. “We are now going to live with our scary sad memories until the end of our lives,” she said.
But in fact, without realizing it, the participants were taking part in a purely political event, where even little children were used to make a political statement. Two little blond girls were holding a banner that said: “You were killed and we are continuously being killed.” The crash and the war seriously impacted local people’s lives. For them the MH17 tragedy was a part of the nightmare that started for them in May last year, when Girkin’s forces took over local administrations and arrested pro-Ukrainian activists.
Maybe that was why the inscription on the memorial did not mention a word about the plane: “In memory of 298 innocent victims of the civil war,” it read.