Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

‘We don’t want this war’: Amid plane wreckage, villagers seek answers

Around site of downed aircraft in rural area controlled by pro-Russian separatists, residents witness scenes of horror

ROZSYPNE, Ukraine — Larissa was working in the garden behind her house in this small, rural village when the bodies started falling from the sky and onto her rows of vegetables.

The first one tumbled and landed near the corn. Two more bounced off her neighbor’s roof and landed in the driveway.

“It was as if someone was pouring them onto us from a bucket in the sky,” she said. “My first thought was that we were being bombed by the Ukrainians, but then I realized that they were bodies.”

By the time the villagers realized what was happening, the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was in their backyards. Thursday saw a gruesome and brutal twist in what now seems to many of these eastern Ukrainians like a never-ending war in what once was a peaceful, forgotten part of the country.

“We don’t want this war. We’re just simple Slavic people,” said Larissa, who declined to give her last name out of fear of repercussions from whoever was waging this war around her. “We were all raised here together and lived peacefully. But now you can see that this is not a happy country.”

The village of Rozsypne is just one of the many small rural communities in which the debris and victims of the Boeing 777 were strewn after it exploded and then crashed into this eastern part of Ukraine, less than 20 miles from the Russian border.

On Friday pieces of the plane’s wings, sides and tail could be traced across seven miles of wheat fields and sunflowers.

One fragment of the fuselage — with a bit of the cabin attached — came roaring out of the sky just before 5 p.m. and headed straight toward Oleksandr Bratchenko’s two-story house on Shirokaya Street in Hrabove, about two miles from Rozsypne.

“My wife said something to me like ‘Look at the strange airplane’ before she realized that it was headed toward our house,” he said. At that point they ran out into the street as the main part of the plane hurled toward Hrabove, dropping bodies along the way in the large wheat fields to the south.

The plane veered left before it could strike the small village and landed near the start of Shirokaya Street, where it burst into flames and created a huge cloud of dense black smoke, Bratchenko said.

“The heat was incredible. You couldn’t get close to it,” he said.

The fuselage left a smoldering, black scar on the earth, where melted bits of the plane were a tangled mess of metal. Locals and journalists freely roamed the area, looking for evidence of passengers, who were headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Thursday. From the guidebooks and pieces of warm-weather clothing strewn about the crash site, it was clear that many had planned on vacationing in places like Bali and Lombok.

More than 24 hours after the crash, the wreckage and victims’ remains lay mostly where they landed when the airliner came down Thursday night.

Recovery workers, firemen and emergency response teams milled around where hundreds of bodies — not all of them intact — were being marked by sticks with white ribbons attached.

By midday, the Ministry of Emergencies had sent trucks over to set up temporary response tents. The crews seemed to be digging in for a long investigation of the scene. But who would be giving them orders remained unknown. Workers were hesitant to talk to journalists, and everyone seemed to be waiting to see who would be the first to arrive on the scene and get the investigation going. 

Meanwhile, accusations continued to fly in Donetsk and Kiev, where Ukrainian authorities claimed that pro-Russian separatists shot down the commercial jet. The rebels said it was the responsibility of the “fascist junta” trying to kill eastern Ukrainians, who have declared an independent republic.

The rebels set up checkpoints around the main crash sites, where local fighters said they were looking to keep banderovtsi away from the site, using a derogatory term for those with pro-Kiev sentiments. They were particularly looking for Kiev journalists who would “lie and say we did this,” said Valeriy, holding a Kalashnikov and dressed in camouflage at a checkpoint outside Hrabove, who would not give his full name.

The area where the plane crashed is a collection of working-class towns and villages where many of the miners and farmers fondly remember the former Soviet Union and have strong sympathies for the pro-Moscow separatist movement. Some towns have been caught in the middle of heavy shelling as Ukrainian military forces have battled to regain ground against the rebels.

Miners inspect a piece of debris from Flight 17 in a field in eastern Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

As recovery workers waited for instructions, the distant rumble of explosions could be heard from what locals said was probably near Antrasyst, a rebel stronghold about 15 miles to the northwest in the neighboring Luhansk region.

The plane crash seemed to have just added confusion to a war that many in the region said no one truly wanted but seemed to be getting worse by the day.

Conspiracy theories ran wild on Friday as to what exactly happened to the plane and its 298 passengers and crew. The United States was surely behind it all, said one minder from Snezhnoye, a nearby mining city that was recently hit by shelling from the Ukrainian military.

“This is a war between America and Moscow, and we are just hostages,” said Sergei, a miner who had been bused to the wreckage site with the rest of his shift to help with the cleanup. “We just want federalization and to live peacefully, but no one is listening to us. This plane crash is just what America needs to start a war with Russia.”

A few miles away, where huge chunks of the plane side had fallen in the middle of a large wheat field, Vladimir Kopoyenko, 50, was inspecting them with two of his neighbors from the village of Petropalovka. He wasn’t buying Kiev’s claims that rebels shot down the plane with a missile system.

“I was sitting in the grass here yesterday, and I heard two explosions — one long one and then one short one,” he said. The first explosion was from a Ukrainian fighter jet that was following the Malaysia Airlines plane and shooting at it, probably at Kiev’s orders, he speculated.

“It’s scary,” he said, taking a drag of his cigarette and gesturing toward what appeared to be the plane’s exterior. “But this is what those fascists are willing to do for war.”

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