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Moment that mattered: MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine

“We were the first international presence at the crash site. It was exactly 24 hours after the crash when we got there and the site was still smouldering. We had more than 20 skilled Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers there, but of course nothing can prepare you for something as horrific as this.

What has stayed with me is the way things fell. It was very random. You would see a business-class seat here, a luggage compartment in the trees. The cockpit was several kilometres away from the site. It had just pancaked. Many of the bodies we saw were not recognisable – they had almost lost their humanity. One of the most difficult parts was when we visited the train station in Torez, where the dead bodies had been put into refrigerated cars. The sight and the stench of death was very difficult to take in.

The first two days we spent there were difficult because the [pro-Russian] rebels weren’t very pleasant to us. They were a ragtag group of men, heavily armed and provocative. We detected that they may have been drinking. They tried to humiliate us. We stood firm and were insistent that we’d been given access and should be treated properly. By day three we had very good access.

“Almost 300 souls who had no connection to Ukraine sadly got caught up in it and lost their lives. That put the conflict back in the headlines for quite some time”

Almost by default we became spokespeople for the entire crash because there was nobody else there. We did daily reports that were important for informing the world, but especially for the families because there was a huge information gap. The wreckage was very dispersed so we’d travel to different sites and mark where we found debris. We also reported on the security situation. Our job was really to accompany the experts. By day four I started putting out the message that even though we were there, other people were much better placed to do the job that was required. We’re not air crash investigators
but observers.

Of course it was initially thought that MH17 would be a gamechanger [in the conflict in eastern Ukraine]. Now, I’m not sure if I’d use that word. What the crash did and continues to do is to remind people that what is happening is a violent conflict which is very dangerous and not isolated. Almost 300 souls who had no connection to Ukraine sadly got caught up in it and lost their lives. That put the conflict back in the headlines for quite some time. It hit the Ukrainians very hard. They’re so fatigued as it is by the events of the past months. It’s sad for a lot of them to see such a tragedy in their own land.

In early September the Minsk agreement [brokered by the OSCE in Belarus, in which the Russian and Ukrainian governments called an immediate halt to hostilities] was negotiated and we had hoped a ceasefire would have taken hold by now, but there’s actually been an escalation in the accumulation of weaponry. In the first half of November we reported on three separate, unmarked military convoys towing heavy artillery and launch rocket systems to Donetsk from the east. We’ve also seen some of the most intensive shelling in Donetsk since the conflict began.

It’s impossible for us to say where the conflict will go. We wish for it to end so that people can come back to where they used to live and get their jobs back. A lot of reconstruction will be needed to get the eastern part of the country back on its feet again.

This [crash-site investigation] will probably go down as one of the most complex recovery efforts ever because it happened in the midst of a conflict zone. When most crashes happen they’re properly dealt with in a semi-sterile environment. Here, there’s no perimeter security and over time the site is very vulnerable to manmade and natural factors.

We’ve brokered a deal with the rebels to finally make the collection of debris happen and we’re very pleased that there are now people on the ground, putting the wreckage on a train to Kharkiv from where it will go to the Netherlands [for investigation]. Hopefully they’ll beat the clock in terms of bad weather and will be able to collect the main pieces of wreckage before the snow comes.”

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