TOREZ, Ukraine — Rebels moved nearly 200 victims' bodies from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash to cold storage and claimed to have recovered its flight recorders Sunday, finally bringing a semblance of progress to a shambolic four-day cleanup operation. But with evidence mounting that the rebels accidentally shot down the plane from a Russian-made missile system, and about 100 bodies still unaccounted for, a serious investigation and recovery process is still far off.
BuzzFeed saw observers from the OSCE, a security agency with observer status in the east Ukraine conflict, inspect three large gray railway cars on Sunday containing an unknown number of bodies at a train station in the town of Torez, a run-down industrial town about ten miles south of where the plane fell when a missile downed it on Thursday.
Heavily armed, well-trained rebels opened the doors, letting off a foul stench of decomposition inside. It was unclear whether the refrigeration was working. The doors were not locked. The wagons were guarded by well-equipped forces from Ukraine's disbanded Berkut riot police who have gone over to the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" — a far cry from the chaotic scenes at the crash site on Saturday, where men on guard were visibly intoxicated, denied observers access, and seemed to have no idea who their commander was.
However, the armed men left along with the OSCE observers a few minutes later. The wagons then stood alone on the platform with nobody to guard them for the rest of the day and the stench trapped inside. For the next hour, no journalists or other observers arrived, leaving the surreal impression that nothing had happened. In the dilapidated neo-classical station building, locals lined up to buy train tickets. Others sat outside waiting for minibuses to trundle past. Few appeared to realize the bodies were being held in the nearby train.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesperson for the monitoring mission, said monitors had seen bodies in body bags inside the wagons, but had no way of telling where they were from or how many there were. Personnel were "not allowed in without special equipment" due to the stage of decomposition the bodies were in after lying in a field in 85-degree heat for three days, Bociurkiw added. "The stench is very very bad," he said.
Emergency workers told the OSCE that 167 bodies had been transported from the main crash site in Hrabove, though Bociurkiw told BuzzFeed that he could only account for "dozens." The bodies were all stored in the proper manner apart from one bag, which had an unknown fleshy protrusion sticking out of it, Bociurkiw said.
Ukraine's governmental commission on the crash said that rebels forced emergency workers to remove 196 bodies from the site overnight, and claimed a further 27 were moved from Hrabove later on Sunday. The discrepancy could possibly be accounted for by a number of bodies rebels took to the morgue in their stronghold of Donetsk after they fell into locals' homes from the sky in the village of Rozsypne. Ukraine says the rebels took 38 bodies, though a rebel official in charge of the cleanup told the Wall Street Journal that the actual number was 34 sets of remains — which may not correspond to the number of victims.
The further destination of the corpses is unknown. Ukraine wants them taken to Kharkiv, a major city 185 miles north of the crash site with facilities to store all 298 victims' bodies and house their relatives. Rebels have mentioned other cities as possible destinations and removed about 30 bodies to a morgue in their stronghold in Donetsk, the provincial capital. The drivers sitting in the plane's faded green Soviet-era engine said they had no idea where it would go. Elderly women sitting in a shabby cafe at the station said it was facing south in the direction of Mariupol, a Ukrainian-held coastal city.
Each side blamed the other for the delay in removing the bodies. Ukrainian deputy prime minister Volodymyr Groizman, head of the government's commission on the crash, said that the rebels were not allowing the train to leave, but a rebel official said they could not do so until international aviation experts arrived from Kiev. Apart from the OSCE monitors, who repeatedly insist that they are not mandated to investigate the crash, no experts have come from outside. Kiev says that the rebels have not guaranteed their safety; rebels want Ukraine to suspend military operations before agreeing.
A tour of several key points in the 35-square kilometer search area revealed few obstacles, however, to sending the experts. Only one of them — the wreckage of the plane's cockpit in the village of Rozsypne — was guarded by a solitary, clearly uninterested rebel. Other gunmen quickly waved cars through the area's many impromptu roadblocks.
Later Sunday afternoon, rebel prime minister Alexander Borodai claimed that the rebels found two orange boxes he presumed were the flight recorders from the Boeing 777 plane, and said they would be transferred to the experts once they arrived.
Ukraine’s security services, however, released a recording of what it said were rebels discussing their efforts to hide the recorders from investigators and transfer them to Russia, which has blamed Kiev for the crash.
"Our friends from high above are very much interested in the fate of the 'black boxes.' I mean people from Moscow," a man purported to be Alexander Khodakovsky, leader of one of the Donetsk People's Republic's major fighting forces, says on the tape.
"Try to take everything that you find so that it doesn't get into somebody else's hands," he continues. "All these people that are coming, OSCE and so on."
BuzzFeed could not independently verify the contents of the tape. In form and content, however, it strongly resembled other tapes of separatists discussing receiving an advanced rocket system from Russia that Ukraine says were used to shoot down the plane. Western intelligence officials have said those tapes appear genuine.
Without denying that the rebels could have shot down the plane, Russia has placed the blame on Ukraine for ignoring calls for a ceasefire and suggested Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems in the area could also have shot down the plane. Kiev has countered by saying that none of its installations were in the area near Torez pinpointed by U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence as the missile's launch site.
The Ukrainians also have no clear motive, while rebels have shot down 12 Ukrainian planes during the conflict. Kiev says it has not fired a single shot into the air, since the separatists do not have any aircraft. The U.S. State Department released a written statement supporting Kiev's version of events Sunday, though U.S. officials privately admit that they have no independent sources of information on the ground in east Ukraine. Washington has repeatedly "confirmed" Ukrainian claims about Russian supplies of weapons and men over the porous eastern border while providing little or no supporting evidence.
Locals, meanwhile, attempted to return to normal life in this impoverished, decaying industrial corner of eastern Ukraine. Most who have not fled the three-month conflict support the separatists and say they are scared to give their names for fear that the Ukrainian government will retaliate against them. Peasants near the crash site in Hrabove, where hundreds of bodies rained down after the plane exploded on Thursday, forked bales of hay. Cows who had seemingly not moved for days mooed idly by the remains of one of the plane's engines. Eighteen more black body bags lined the road. Green ones for fragments — fingers, feet, and unrecognizable strands of flesh — were scattered among them.
The only body that made it to the morgue in Torez belonged to a six-year-old boy found by a local in Hrabove, who drove it there in a gray Zhiguli after the plane crashed on Thursday. "He didn't want the dogs to eat away at the body," said a mortician who gave only her first name and patronymic, Lyubov Nikolayevna.
The boy's body was largely intact, though he suffered a "field of injuries" including severe burns, she said. He was naked except for a green t-shirt wrapped around his neck.
"We don't want war here," she said. "We want peace, to cook borscht, bake pies, and bring up our kids."
Olga Vyacheslavovna, an emergency services technician who also gave only her first name and patronymic, took the body to a makeshift camp at Rozsypne, where more bodies and other debris landed, including the cockpit. She said many bodies had fallen on people's houses and had expected to take more to the morgue before emergency services arrived.
Villagers in nearby Petropavlivka idled the day waiting for someone to clear away the debris that had fallen in their houses and front yards. A 77-year-old woman with a small scattering of jagged brown teeth who called herself Baba Dusya recalled how her daughter had saved her from a falling hunk of interior as she returned from milking her cow. "It's a miracle I survived," she said, adding that it reminded her of hiding under pine trees from Nazi bombers as a child during World War II. Her son, who declined to give his name, worried about who would come to take the oxygen masks, tray tables, in-flight TV, and other debris from out front of their house. "Whether it's the DNR or the National Guard, I don't even care," he said.
Despite Ukrainian accusation of looting, the victims' personal effects mostly appeared to have been untouched. Locals in Petropavlivka and Roszypne lined up flowers and stuffed toys by the mass of debris in their villages — a flying red elephant, a pink bear, a panting purple dog. An old man with a hole in his throat mimed directions. Miners wandered through a field, helping with the search. Mothers wheeled children in prams past hunks of cockpit. Dead animals could be seen in large numbers on the decrepit rural roads — a splayed cat, a squashed bird, lumps of fur and blood. There was nobody to come and clear them up.