After the Crash
Grabrove, Ukraine, where flight MH17 was blown out of the sky, ninety percent of adults are out of work, young men drink vodka on airplane seats, and nightmares of the crash keep children up at night.
By Per Christian Selmer-Anderssen
Photos: Kyrre Lien.
—“The first toast is for peace,” Vladimir says as he fills four glasses with homemade vodka.
The 28-year-old is sitting with his friends on the airline seats of Malaysia Airlines flight 17. These green, pink, and red seats were once attached to the Boeing 777 airliner headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. But on July 17, 2014, shortly after 5 p.m. local time, the plane with 298 passengers was shot down over this small village.
The bodies were left in the scorching sun for several days, guarded by pro-Russian separatists armed with AK-47 rifles. On the third day after the crash, locals gathered in the church. “We must do something,” they said. “The bodies can’t just be left here.” The local civil defence forces provided body bags and the town’s citizens began the macabre task of picking up the remains.
By March 2015, 295 bodies and the plane’s most vital parts have been transported to the Netherlands. However, three passengers are still not found and there are still debris on the ground.
From time to time, the residents of Grabove come across human bones in their fields.
At the crash site, the blackened soil is embedded with wire and melted debris.
A few hundred meters away, the locals have stowed the passengers’ belongings in a hangar. There’s a teddy bear, disheveled from rain and show. An economics book, once on a reading list, its pages now stiff from old dirt. A black ankle boot. A baseball cap. A student’s ID card. In the photo, the boy is smiling, unaware of the fate awaiting him at the end of the school year.
In the same hangar are parts of the plane body. At night, Vladimir and his friends have volunteered to guard the plane.
“We haven’t got anything else to do, so we sit here all night. Drinking beers. Watching movies,” explains one of the friends, a stout man called Artëm.
The airline seats are arranged in a group, and works as a provisory sofa for the volunteers. A generator gives the men electricity for television series and floodlights. A fire in a metal barrel makes the cold December night slightly warmer.
Vladimir chops potatoes, breaks five eggs into a pan and fries them over the fire. Artëm texts a girlfriend and ask her to come over. They will stay here until 4 a.m., but it is not even 6 p.m. yet. It will be a long night with the wreck.
Long way home
On December 9, a week before we arrive in Grabove, the Dutch Safety Board transported the most vital parts of the plane to The Netherlands. Two months later, on February 2, the Dutch investigators returned to the crash sites to gather soil samples, personal belongings and human remains. It was brought by plane to Eindhoven Air Base the following Saturday, and welcomed by a ceremony.
According to the Dutch authorities, there are still personal belongings and wreckage on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, as the area can not be accessed due to the security situation. “The mayors agreed to arrange to have pieces of wreckage retrieved and stored over the coming period. The material will then be collected by the team at a later date”, the Ministry of Security and Justice writes in a press release in February.
The Dutch Safety Board, who is investigating the incident, have not concluded on what actually happened to the plane or who shot it down. In a report from September 2014 they write that it was hit from the outside by a large number of “high-energy objects”. They will publish their final report this summer, and will not give any comments before it is finished.
A journey to Donetsk
Mid December 2014. The photographer, the interpreter, the driver and myself are on our way to Grabove. To get there, we must pass five or six checkpoints guarded by pro-Russian separatists.
Some of the soldiers are Russians; others are former miners who have taken up arms. What they have in common is AK-47 rifles, heavy ammunition belts, and a grand vision of Donetsk as an independent republic, freed from Ukraine.
Through the car window, we spot trees scared by artillery, and provisory barracks built by car tires.
The ammunition rattles. A hand comes through the car window. Press cards and passports are handed over.
Some of the soldiers have personal messages in white writing on their rifles; some have covered their faces with a balaclava. Perhaps to remain anonymous, perhaps because it is a cold and bleak day in the Donetsk Peoples Republic.
The conflict started in spring 2014. President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country after tens of thousands of people had demanded his removal, and snipers from the police forces had killed more than 100 protesters in Kiev. Russia answered by annexing the Crimean Peninsula.
A few weeks later, thousands of demonstrators from both sides took to the streets in Donetsk. Some were protesting for a united Ukraine, others wanted independence.
On April 6 2014, pro-Russian rebels seized the administrative building in Donetsk and proclaimed that they were leading the Donetsk People’s Republic. Since then, Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces have fought over this area in the eastern part of Ukraine. Today, the rebels occupy the capital city, Donetsk, as well as the area where MH17 was shot down. When the conflict turned into a ceasefire in February 2015, it had cost 6000 lives.
In the foggy distance, we catch sight of a new barricade. Men with firearms. A flag with Saint George waving in the wind. As we approach, a separatist stops our car.
Another hand comes through the car window and demands passports and documents.
“What are you doing here?”
“They are writing a story about the plane that fell down,” our driver explains.
He shows a glimpse of his gold tooth.
“We are local men,” he says.
“There are no Russians here.”
The fog lifts, and through the window we notice white signs with airplane symbols and phone numbers written in large types. We have arrived at the crash site.
An hour later, we are welcomed into a warm, cozy living room with soft carpets and a large flat screen TV. This is the home of Aleksander Kovalenko, a former miner – now pensioner. He shares the house with his mother, his wife, two adult daughters, a grandchild, a massive Saint Bernard, two cows and a calf.
Summer 2014 was defined by fear and oppressive heat. After the war had broken out a few months earlier, the bomb raids took place more often—and closer. The residents of Grabove fled down into their basements, which they stacked with jars of food placed on dusty shelves.
On July 17, 2014, Valentina Kovalenko, 48, was in her kitchen. It was just after 5 p.m. Through the kitchen window, she noticed two smoking engines held together by an aircraft body. It had no wings, but it descended towards the ground at a rapid speed. Valentina cried out, grabbed her 4-year-old grandchild and ran to the yard. It appeared as if the plane would hit their small, wooden house. She ran towards the basement, and yelled to her husband Aleksander that he had to take shelter. But they were out of time. The plane had already crashed.
They froze, perplexed. Then the Kovalenko family ran toward the black smoke that rose from another part of the village. The plane had crashed in the garden of the Kovalenko’s nephew, who emerged from the basement door with his wife. Their faces were scratched; the air pressure from the plane threw them down the basement stairs.
Together with the rest of the locals, Valentina and Aleksander began filling buckets with water. They were going to extinguish the fire.
“We thought it was a military aircraft and called the fire brigade. They didn’t seem to care,” Aleksander tells us, six months later.
A young man from the village had gone around in a car to see the scope of the accident: “There are dead bodies further up the road. They are sitting in airline seats,” he told the others.
Aleksander, Valentina, and the other villagers realize that this was not a military aircraft. It was a passenger plane.
“When this was revealed, the fire brigade arrived within a few minutes,” Aleksander recalls.
Six months later, Aleksander and Valentina’s grandson Danila, 4, has five toy planes to play with: some small military aircrafts, a propeller plane, and a Boeing double-decker. “Boing, poof, tsss. Look now!” They crash, take off, land and fly in loop. Danila can be air traffic controller all by himself. He is the only child in a house full of grownups.
“Who shot down the plane this summer? The Germans?” he asks his grandparents.
Aleksander and Valentina laugh. They are certain the Ukrainians caused the crash, and talks about a Ukrainian jet shooting it down from the same airway.
Their view of reality is quite different from the Western perspective. German and American intelligence agencies say pro-Russian rebels shot down the plane with a missile stolen from the Ukrainian armed forces. The conclusion from the Dutch Safety Board, is yet to be published.
Whenever Aleksander thinks of these warm summer days of 2014, he starts crying. He thinks about the body parts, some of them in positions as if they were trying to shield themselves from the impact of the crash. “I was surprised that there was no blood,” he says.
Other bodies were dismembered by the high-voltage cables stretching across the fields.
“The neighbor boy volunteered to help clean up. He was no more than 10 or 12 years old, only a schoolboy. We found a small girl who was only 7 or 8 years old. It was so painful. A boy shouldn’t have to see those things,” Aleksander says.
His hands wipe an invisible tear. Once more he rises from his chair and walks back and forth in his living room. He sits down again. Pours coffee. Eats a biscuits. Tries to forget.
“After that day, I can no longer slaughter our chicken. I cannot see them die,” Aleksander says.
Story about a village
At this time last year, Grabove was an ordinary small Ukrainian village. About one thousand people lived there, half of them retired. A community center held Christmas parties and weddings; there was a run-down school with a track and playground. The town’s sturdy mayor was a master of the art of smoking, driving a car, and speaking on the phone—simultaneously. In other words, a fairly conventional village, where locals grew potatoes, harvested apples, and milked cows. The old lived off whatever the land could provide, and the young descended into the dark coalmines.
It was hazardous work, Aleksander explains. Being an old miner, he knows the underground world as the one above. The shafts were narrow and the air was bad, but the salaries were fairly good. If you didn’t have luck by your side, the consequences could be fatal. Aleksander quit when he got health problems. Neither his back nor his lungs could take the work anymore.
“When I was working in the mine we used to get a Christmas bonus. We took the first flight from Donetsk to Moscow, got ourselves drunk on vodka, took the next flight back—and went to work,” Aleksander recalls.
He laughs loudly while Valentina’s lips tighten. She rolls her eyes. The last few months haven’t been as joyous. Valentina and Aleksander have not received their pension payments from Ukraine since June 2014. Nor have they received anything from the new government.
Many in the People’s Republic are facing the same difficulties; neither public employees nor pensioners and those entitled to welfare benefits are paid. Most of the mines have shut down and the miners have lost their jobs. Next to the old mines, however, new and illegal mines have opened. Here, the profit goes to the rebels only.
Ten minutes walk from the Kovolenkos, or five minutes drive on a muddy road, is the city hall of Grabove. A small and cold brick building, where all the clerks wear heavy winter jackets in their offices. After the money transfers from Ukraine stopped, the municipality couldn’t afford heating.
The mayor Vladimir Bereshnoy greets us with a weary look.
“We have one thousand inhabitants in this town. Only 100 of them have jobs. Four hundred are retired and 50 are children, which means that almost half of the population is unemployed,” says Vladimir Bereshnoy.
He lets out a heavy sigh.
“This year has been awful. The children have nightmares, and almost everyone has seen things they shouldn’t have to see. But the worst is the bombings that followed. My one-year-old grandchild has learnt three words this summer; ‘mother,’ ‘father’—and ‘boom,’” Bereshnoy says.
He is standing by a large desk, with two wallets, an iPhone, two boarding passes and a green notebook. These are the most private of the belongings from the passengers of MH17.
“There was €100 in the wallet, and the cell phone worked when we found it—but now it has run out of battery. We are handing this over to OSCE,” Bereshnoy tells us.
He has been mayor of Grabove for the last four years; three of those years in Ukraine, the last in Donetsk People’s Republic. It was not much of a transformation.
“Nothing happened. Nobody called. Nobody said anything. In summer the money transfers from Kiev stopped. Since then, neither I nor any other employees have received any payment.”
But the people who remains in Grabove, continues to work. Teachers hold classes, the Kovolenkos sell milk, the community hall still arranges aerobic lessons – and the mayor stands on his post in the chilly city hall. Even though the payment has stopped, he still has work to do.
“First I have to finish the work with the airplane. Then, we need to find funds for the people here. They haven’t received their payments in months; some are sick and many have no relatives. Panic is about to erupt here in Grabove.”
The mayor looks down at the sad relics of MH17. It looks like he is holding back tears.
“I wish to work, to sleep at night, to be a grandfather. That’s it. We just want to live in peace. We are so tremendously tired.”
Around the wreckage of MH17 is the third toast with mandarin vodka about to happen. This toast is for the future, the next will be for the men.
Night at the wreckage
Artëm worked as a carpenter in Donetsk. Vladimir was a truck driver. But after the civil war broke out last spring, the demand for these types of services has plummeted.
“No one renovates homes anymore,” Artëm remarks dryly. Vladimir has left his truck, his pastime is driving back-and-forth in the village with his personal car. Sometimes he stumbles upon a rocket, and then he photographs it for his friend to see. During the nights, he sits here around the wreckage. Watching the fire light up the hangar. Pouring vodka into small glasses.
He lights his cigarette. Lifts the glass of homemade mandarin vodka.
“Cheers! For the future!”
“Cheers! For the men!”