Train transporting bodies marooned in rebel territory
Kiev and rebels blame each other for delaying crash investigation and transfer of bodies
The ladies living beside Torez’s little train station heard the trucks pull up at around midnight on Saturday.
They wouldn’t say what they saw being unloaded, but yesterday, under a blazing sun, large patches of sawdust partially covered a trail of dark patches that led through the station car park to platform one.
A brightly coloured locomotive stood there, chugging in the heat, attached to five grey metal wagons.
“The wagons were here when I started my shift at 7am,” said Veronika, in the signal box overlooking tracks that led away into eastern Ukraine.
“Their refrigeration systems were turned on, and I was told to direct the train on to that platform. But I don’t know where it will go – we need instructions from our superiors.”
Like the driver waiting for a destination in his train’s tiny, sweltering cabin, and the ladies in the apartments on Station Road, Veronika knew full well what was in the grey wagons.
Ukrainian officials said the train sitting deep in rebel-held territory contained the remains of about 200 of 298 people who were on board the Malaysia Airlines aircraft that disintegrated over fields and villages in Donetsk region last Thursday.
Theft from siteThe US says the pro-Moscow militants almost certainly shot down the plane, using an advanced surface-to-air missile system brought across the border from Russia.
International horror at the disaster is mingling with outrage at how the rag-tag rebels and their alleged Russian backers are handling its aftermath, with western officials accusing them of mistreating the victims’ bodies, stealing from the wreckage, failing to protect the crash site from contamination and hampering a swift investigation.
At about midday yesterday, unarmed inspectors from the 57-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) arrived to examine the train and its cargo, monitored by a squad of heavily armed separatists. They opened the heavy doors of the wagons to confirm its gruesome cargo, and then drove away from Torez.
Their rebel minders departed shortly afterwards, leaving the train and its 200 or so bodies unguarded. A similar scenario played out on Saturday in corn and sunflower fields 20km away, where the largest parts of the Boeing 777 and scores of bodies ended their plunge from 33,000ft near the village of Grabovo.
A convoy of OSCE cars was met at the crash site by rebels led by a swarthy fighter with the nom de guerre, Ugriumy – “Gloomy” in Russian – who greeted them by swapping his Kalashnikov rifle for a heavy machine gun and positioning himself in the middle of the road.
The foreign observers were followed to Grabovo by ex-members of Ukrainian special forces units now loyal to the rebels, who fanned out into the fields to “guard” a site that had been open to all-comers for nearly 48 hours.
Having fired a warning shot when the OSCE first visited the area on Friday evening, and again on Saturday when journalists were slow to obey his commands, Ugriumy did not hide his contempt for the “international community”.
“You’re all here now because of this tragedy, and it is a tragedy,” he said, cradling his gun in his arms and surveying reporters with bloodshot eyes.
“But where were you when the Ukrainians were bombing us, using American weapons against us, and violently overthrowing the government?” he seethed, referring to the ousting of Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich in February.
Ceasefire requiredThe OSCE was not satisfied with the access it was given to the crash site, just as Ukraine and the west were unhappy with the rebels for apparently taking away the aircraft’s black boxes and for moving passengers’ bodies to Torez.
“We couldn’t wait any longer because of the heat and also because there are many dogs and wild animals in the [crash] zone,” said Alexander Borodai, the Muscovite rebel “prime minister” who accuses Ukraine of downing the airliner.
Last night, Kiev and the separatists were blaming each other for the failure of air crash experts to reach the site of the wreckage. And some leading rebels were insisting that no investigation could take place until a ceasefire was agreed.
“There’ll be no ceasefire,” growled Ugriumy, “but only be the total surrender of the enemy. While I live and breathe, I will burn Ukrainians in their tanks.”
“That’s why I’m called ‘Ugriumy’,” he added. “That’s how I feel when I haven’t destroyed a Ukrainian tank for a while.”
When the church bells in Torez tolled 3pm in the afternoon, with the temperature above 30 degrees, it was still unclear when and where the train would go: to Kiev-controlled territory or to Russia.
“In Torez we hear bombing all the time,” said Veronika in the signal box, as on platform one large flies buzzed around the doors of the wagons.
“Should we stay here or go? In all this chaos, no one knows.”