Warning: graphic image below.
A "no man’s land” is how Alexander Borodai described the fields of war-torn eastern Ukraine where the missing bodies of up to 98 passengers from the downed MH17 flight may still be lying.
“[The site] is on the frontline between our divisions and the forces of the opposition, the Ukrainian military,” the self-styled prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said shortly after the plane was downed.
The recovery of the bodies — many of which were mangled and dismembered during the plane’s explosion and ground impact — from the war zone has been fraught with tensions ranging from the farcical to the heartbreaking, and now many bodies appear to be uncounted for.
Ukrainian officials and Malaysian Airlines had previously stated that 282 bagged bodies were on board the train that left rebel-held Donetsk for the Ukrainian held city Kharkiv in the early hours of Tuesday morning. But upon arrival at its destination later in the day Jan Tuinder, head of the international team of forensic experts, admitted that they believed the carriages might only contained the remains of 200 people.
A confirmed figure of the number of bodies will not be known until all the gathered remains have been transported to the Netherlands where the body bags will be opened, Tuinder said.
All 15 crew members and 283 passengers, including 80 children, on the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed in the crash.
Kiev and its western allies have accused the pro-Russia rebels operating in the area of being behind the attack and hampering access to the site in a bid to hide evidence.
On their first attempt to visit the scene of the crash officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] were forced to beat a hasty retreat after a rebel gunman going by the name of “Commander Grumpy” grabbed a children’s stuffed toy monkey and told press to “show the world that the Ukrainian government is killing kids,” before warning journalists and officials to "get away from here" and firing a warning shot in the air.
Although the pro-Russia rebels controlling the area have slowly increased their cooperation with the OSCE, international forensic experts have yet been unable to gain unfettered access to the scene of the crash, making visits only under the escort of heavily armed rebels — including defected officers from the notorious police special unit “Berkut.”
The gunmen have denied hindering the investigative processes and say they are just providing security.
"Having experts here is elementary," gun wielding Commander Grumpy told VICE News at the scene of devastation near Grabovo. "We're assisting them in every way possible, we are inviting them here."
Meanwhile in Donetsk, the administrative capital of the rebel republic, Prime Minister Borodai criticized what he claimed was a slow response by the international community.
"We are not a small island, they [experts] should have been able to get here by now," he said.
But Peter Van Vliet, one of three Dutch forensic experts who have managed to reach rebel-held Donetsk, described the journey as a “logistical nightmare” of being transferred in darkness between escorts from the two warring sides.
With no specialized recovery team able to reach the scene in time, the job of locating and removing bodies fell to an ad hoc team of local emergency service workers, including firefighters, medics, and policemen, joined up with a groups of volunteer miners to comb through the site. Many seemed overwhelmed with the enormity of the gruesome task.
"It's very hard to come to terms with what has happened here. What is happening here. I have never seen anything like this," said a bewildered policeman, Ivan, slowly picking his way through long grass and debris as the dull boom of mortar fire echoed in the distance.
The process of finding and marking the location of hundreds of human remains took more than three days to complete, leaving the bodies exposed to the elements including sweltering heat and heavy rain.
With bodies decomposing rapidly and few other options open to them, the rebels controlling the site oversaw and hastily put together an operation of bundling the remains into black bags and loading them onto a train in nearby Torez which, after 24 hours of lengthy negotiations, finally departed for Kharkiv in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
This morning, more than five days after the plane was downed, refrigerated trucks finally began shuttling coffins to the airport in Kharkiv from a dilapidated Soviet-era tank production factory where they were stored overnight after arriving by train just before noon on Tuesday.
In a short ceremony on the airport’s blisteringly hot tarmac at 11AM, an honor guard of dozens of Ukrainian soldiers stood to attention as the pinewood caskets were lifted on board the Dutch military transport plane. The solemn farewell ceremony was attended by officials from Australia, Malaysia, and The Netherlands.
Standing on the runway Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman delivered a brief speech in which he condemned the downing of the plane as an "inhumane terrorist act" carried out with help from Russia.
Kiev will do “everything in its power to bring those guilty to justice,” he added.
By Wednesday evening 40 coffins had arrived at Eindhoven airport and the rest of the remains currently in Kharkiv should arrive in The Netherlands by Friday, officials said.
But what will be done about the missing bodies is unknown. Today after visiting several locations where plane debris has been discovered, OSCE spokesperson Michael Bociurkiw confirmed that some human remains were still at the site.
A comprehensive clear-up operation at the crash site, which spans over several square miles of rural landscape, includes lakes, steep terrain, and thick forestation "could take weeks," Vera Radovic, head of the International Committee of Red Cross office in Donetsk, told VICE News.
But today as bodies departed by plane for Kharkiv there was no sign on the ground of renewed attempts to locate the missing bodies. Neither emergency service workers or rebels were present at the main crash site where a pile of empty stretchers lay in the corn fields which were sealed off by only a short flimsy stretch of red and white tape.
Speaking to VICE News, Aleksander, a local from Rozsypne — a village more than 3 miles from the main crash site — described how his family had just sat down for dinner on the night of the crash when “bodies started falling from the air.”
“We heard a huge bang and ran outside, one had fallen on our roof. We are still repairing the damage now,” he said.
More than 30 corpses are believed to have rained down on the village, including one that smashed through the window of a retiree.
Locals say that the emergency service workers searched the nearby fields and mine two days ago, but much of the untrammelled wooded area stretching around the village outskirts appears to remain unchartered territory.
“Lord knows how many could still be out there,” said retiree Ana, making the sign of the cross and gesturing to the trees beyond her house. "God rest their souls."
All photos by Harriet Salem
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem