Malaysia Airlines Victims’ Bodies Held Hostage

Bodies of victims lined up at the site of the Malaysia jet crash in Grabovo, Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatist militiamen have seized custody of the bodies of about 200 victims of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, and rebels continued to limit access to the crash site. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times
Bodies of victims lined up at the site of the Malaysia jet crash in Grabovo, Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatist militiamen have seized custody of the bodies of about 200 victims of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, and rebels continued to limit access to the crash site. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times –Mauricio Lima/New York Times

TOREZ, Ukraine — Three wrenching days after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the bodies of most of those aboard have ended up here, in a fly-infested railway station in a rough coal-mining town in eastern Ukraine.

For now, they are stuck, lying in five gray refrigerated train cars in this rebel-controlled war zone, hostages to high politics and mutual distrust.

The government in Kiev, sensing a moment to marshal international attention against rebels seeking to break away from Ukraine, has accused them of blocking access to the bodies and the crash site and delaying what is already a very painful process for the families of the dead.

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The rebels insist they are cooperating, and say they want to turn the 247 bodies they had recovered as of Sunday over to international representatives. But they say those officials have not arrived because the Ukrainian government is frightening them from entering rebel territory.

Neither of their conflicting story lines fully reflects the chaos on the ground, where an incoherent recovery effort is being carried out by motley groups of mostly well-meaning but untrained people. On Sunday that included miners straight from their shifts, local residents who arrive on run-down motorbikes and poorly equipped emergency service workers who sleep in the field, amid the stench of decay, in sagging orange and blue tents.

The prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, said Sunday that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was negotiating with rebels to move the bodies out of the conflict zone.

“All efforts are focused on getting this train onto territory controlled by Ukrainian authorities,’’ Rutte said in Amsterdam, according to Reuters. He said a team of specialists was likely to enter the crash site Monday in an effort to identify the bodies.

But for now, their train is going nowhere, a final indignity for families as they grieve the loss of their loved ones. When asked Sunday afternoon where the train was headed, its driver said he had not been given a destination.

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“Nobody knows, and no one will say,’’ he said.

The United States and Ukraine have criticized the rebels for what they say has been evidence tampering and concealment at the crash site. But the chaos at the site may be as much a product of confusion and incompetence as anything.

Instead of a crime scene marked with police tape, helicopters scouring its 13 square miles, and specialists poring over every detail with special equipment, the area was a post-Soviet free-for-all playing out in a war zone, where most of the trappings of a modern state have fallen away. With the police mostly gone, for example, militiamen now respond to traffic accidents.

“This is a disaster like no other,’’ said Michael Bociurkiw, the spokesman for the European security agency mission. The standard response, he said, is, “You secure the area and then you go about the established business.’’

He added: “That hasn’t happened here. And whether they even have the ability for that to happen is unclear.’’

At the crash site Sunday, rescue workers picked through a charred pile of suitcases, mangled airplane seats and bits of metal and clothing, using nothing but their hands and a few small sticks. Cows grazed in one of the fields near the fuselage. Army green stretchers made in 1959, some with dark splotches of blood, lay on the matted grasses near the road.

“Body!’’ shouted one of the men. They dug harder, yanking unsuccessfully at a large hunk of metal that lay heavily on an unrecognizable body part.

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A second asked for help. “There’s no one here,’’ said a third. A fourth asked: “Does anyone have a shovel?’’

U.S. intelligence officials have said a proper investigation could answer crucial questions about who is responsible for shooting down the plane, but the hopes for retrieving anything useful from the site are dwindling with each passing day.

Two days after the crash, for example, potentially decisive evidence was lying, seemingly undiscovered, in a recently harvested field about 5 miles from the central crash site: a large curled sheet of metal, apparently part of the outside of the plane, that had multiple, even holes torn into it. A weapons expert who reviewed photographs said the holes were consistent with a blast from a missile of the type U.S. officials believe brought down the plane.

Distrust poisoned the process. One rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said Sunday that the plane’s flight recorder, which contains details about the plane’s status before it went down, had surfaced, but that he wanted to give it to international experts, not Ukrainians.

Officials in Kiev have accused the rebels of trying to spirit the recorder to Moscow and released audio recordings that they claimed proved it. And Ukraine’s government said Sunday that it had captured 23 rebels who were all Russian passport holders.

Nikolai, a coal mine worker, had driven 35 miners from their morning shift in a large, rusty white bus with blue stripes to help with the search. The miners walked seven in a line with an emergency worker, combing the fields for bodies and plane parts.

Nikolai — who would give only his patronymic, Vasilievich, and not his last name — recently had his own tragedy. On Tuesday, a bomb hit his apartment building, killing his brother. Villagers blame the Ukrainian military, which they say was aiming at a nearby rebel base, though Ukraine denies that.

“Tomorrow he would have been 55,’’ Vasilievich said, eating seeds in the shade of his bus. He blames the Ukrainians for shooting down the passenger jet, a common sentiment here.

Ragtag rebels were mostly gone from the site on Sunday, though one who stood guard bemoaned the primitiveness of the operation. He told of a small pack of foxes that ran through the wreckage at night, attracted by the smell.

“They could have done it all with helicopters by now, flying over the fields,’’ said the rebel, who identified himself only as Vova, holding a rifle made in 1954. “Grief should bring people together,’’ he added.

Also gone was a trigger-happy rebel nicknamed Mosquito with a penchant for firing into the air when people disobeyed him. The European security agency monitors left the crash site on Friday after hearing shooting. But on Sunday they were walking unobstructed around the site, protected by guards, many of whom wore the blue camouflage pants and maroon berets of Ukraine’s disbanded special police.

One watched over the observers through new binoculars. Another nearby carried a new Dragunov sniper rifle. Four Ukrainian aviation experts were also working on site, though they declined to speak with journalists.

Since the crash on their doorsteps, villagers from Grabovo have gathered for prayers and laid flowers along the road. Yellow daisies rest on one piece of black metal at the site, and beside it lies a small stuffed doll in a purple dress, left as a tribute.

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine has claimed that rebels stole credit cards from the wreckage. One villager, Elena, who declined to give her last name, strongly disputed that.

“That is a sin, a big sin in our faith,’’ she said. “This is a cemetery. Who would take from it?’’

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