The air above the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 churned with the roaring noise of motors, and clouds of black smoke.
A column of 10 armored personnel carriers parked on the road between two fields that—a year ago on July 17—were covered in burnt and broken bodies, the 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers of MH17. Now, Russian-backed soldiers were jumping off the armored vehicles to the ground, unloading tents, blankets, backpacks and food packages, and setting up for a picnic right on the debris fields.
A tall, gloomy lieutenant introduced himself as Anatoly and said that his brigade’s job now was “to provide security” for the commemoration events devoted to the anniversary of the tragedy. The soldier did not explain who was the perceived aggressor and who needed his protection.
What did he think of the Dutch investigation suggesting that it was pro-Russian forces who grounded the Boeing 777, and its cabin full of innocent people, with a surface-to-air missile? “That is a total lie made up by politicians who want this war to continue,” Anatoly said.
Today, only white crosses and improvised memorials—decorated with flowers and stuffed animals by locals from nearby villages—recalled last year’s horrifying tragedy. The actual event lives on in people’s memories. Even a year later, witnesses shed tears describing the day they saw the bodies along the road, or in their own houses and gardens. Every now and then, local people still find belongings on the field. The sight of soldiers preparing to eat their lunch right on the field seemed shockingly out of place.
One of the soldiers, Vladimir, who is 23, has suffered three concussions in battles since the New Year. With a broad smile across his round face, Vladimir ticked off a list of food items printed on the army package sealed in blue plastic: “Very tasty but no vitamins,” he said of the contents. The provisions were sent to rebel forces from Russia; on Thursday morning, another caravan of 30 or so trucks marked as “Humanitarian aid from the Russian Federation” arrived in Donetsk.
Relaxing on a scrap of tent fabric spread out in the shade of the armored vehicle, Ilyas—from Kaspiysk in the Russian republic of Dagestan—said that more than a year ago he had signed a contract with the “brigade of the Donetsk People’s Republic forces” and that now his job was to guard that field scarred now by armored personnel tracks. “I just obey DPR orders,” Ilyas explained leisurely.
Holding a sniper gun across his chest, a tall skinny soldier, Sergei Kuznetsov—nicknamed Kuzia, from Vladivostok—chatted about his wedding scheduled for August. In several months of fighting, human tragedies mingled with routine for Kuzia. Along the road, three local boys came running from the village of Hrabovo to see the military and the armored machines. Each of the children had a toy weapon in hand. One of the boys took a stand posing for a photograph with his toy machine gun across his chest.
“As I will become a soldier when I grow, I am not afraid of anything,” the boy said. Shelling, fighting, deaths, funerals, weapons and the military are usual news now for children in this region, their new reality.
The soldiers’ picnic ended as quickly as it started. The situation changed dramatically in a few minutes. The signal came from the leadership to get ready to move. Dagestani Ilyas jumped on his feet, put on his black sunglasses. Lieutenant Colonel Aleksei, the commander for the operation, ordered: “Drive away, immediately!” Soldiers sprang on their feet, packed all their blankets and food back on the vehicles.
The strange mission that lasted less than one hour was illustrative of this war. Rebel commanders and soldiers come and go, rotating quickly through posts, some making money and earning stars on epaulettes, some losing their health or their lives. But the local people in Hrabovo must live next to this tragic place for good.
“Our memories of the nightmare will go to the grave with us, our hearts will never stop crying for the victims,” Tatyana Timchenko, the director of an orphanage on the edge of the field, told The Daily Beast.
Last July, three bodies—of a man, a woman and a teenage boy— fell in the garden of the orphanage, right before the eyes of some of the orphans. Now, a year later, residents of the villages realize that, unlike the soldiers, they cannot jump on a tank and drive away from the crash and all its memories.
“When four bodies fell on Zagorskaya Street, we covered them with blankets, so our children would not see this horror,” a Rozsypne village resident, Raisa Dobrovolskaya, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Now our mission is to clean and care for the memorials.”
Pushing a carriage with a baby in it, she dismissively shook her head to the question about the truth behind crash. “I refuse to believe that it was Russia that shot at the plane. Such a truth would break our hearts.”