HRABOVE, Ukraine — The armed pro-Russia separatist nicknamed Grumpy wasn’t taking any chances when the convoy of international observers arrived at the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down.
In his opinion, the representatives packed in marked SUVs from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were part of the larger, American-controlled puppet show determined to destroy the pan-Slavic brotherhood he was fighting to protect. The international mission would make up lies and say the rebels had downed the plane, Grumpy told journalists before the observers arrived.
Three days after the Malaysia Airlines plane exploded in the air and flung its debris and passengers into the fields and villages of this pro-Russia rebel held territory, there are still few concrete answers as to what exactly caused the tragedy.
The United States has sided with the Ukrainian government, saying that facts point to what they say is a Moscow-sponsored insurgency, whose fighters shot down the passenger jet with a land-to-air missile system.
The rebels have denied the allegation, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the responsibility for the tragedy lies squarely on the shoulders of the Ukrainian government for provoking and continuing a violent civil war in the eastern part of the country, where a larger population of mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians have been demanding more autonomy from a Western-leaning Kiev.
All sides agree that a thorough investigation needs to take place, but on the ground little seems to be getting accomplished as armed men continue to stand at checkpoints on the roads and mill in and around major parts of the wreckage.
Behind Grumpy, another rebel wearing a black ski mask got behind the wheel of an old, Soviet-era bus and parked it perpendicular across the road leading to the largest piece of the downed Boeing 777. On both sides of the blocked road lay what is expected to be close to 200 bodies, passengers and crew from the flight.
“I’m not letting anyone from the OSCE through,” Grumpy said as he stood defiantly with a Kalashnikov in front of the first vehicle in the convoy.
To emphasize his point, Grumpy briefly turned away from the OSCE observers’ convoy with his Kalashnikov, went behind the bus blocking the road and returned with a larger automatic weapon with an ammunition belt attached.
“OK, OSCE can go to the site but only on foot. No vehicles,” he said.
The reason for Grumpy’s sudden change of heart was unclear. He seemed to be taking orders from no one in particular and wavered between being friendly with the dozens of journalists at the site and getting angry at them for filming what had already been photographed a dozen times.
Just half an hour before, Grumpy had fired a warning shot with his Kalashnikov after he said journalists weren’t obeying his orders. The journalists had been warned not to photograph the medical experts examining the victims, but still some were trying to do live shots from the scene.
“Do I need to speak to you in another way so you understand?” he yelled, and then raised his automatic rifle and fired one round into the air.
Meanwhile, most of the 298 passengers’ bodies have been in the open summer air for three days, drawing outrage from the international community.
On Saturday, rescue workers from Donetsk began placing the bodies in black plastic bags and hauling them out of the field. The smell of the decaying bodies grew as the sun came out after a short, sprinkling rain.
By midday, the rescue workers had packed about 20 bodies and placed them on the side of the road, where they would wait to be taken to morgues. The Ukrainian government said the bodies would be sent to a special laboratory in Kharkiv, an eastern city firmly in the control of the Kiev government the eastern rebels are fighting against.
Grumpy eventually let a dozen members of the OSCE team visit the crash’s site in the small village of Hrabove, where the fuselage had fallen, exploded and left a blackened scar on the wheat fields.
But they were not given free room to roam the area. As Grumpy blocked the convoy, dozens of heavily armed and masked men formed a perimeter around the site and prevented the OSCE team and the journalists that outnumbered them from going toward the road running down the middle of the fields.
The scene was tense even before the OSCE group arrived Saturday. Medical workers were reluctant to talk about whom they were working for, either the representatives from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic or the Ukrainian government, where they technically remain on the government’s payroll.
With so many armed men around, did they think the investigation into the crash was transparent and fair?
“These questions aren’t for us, it’s not our concern,” said the head of the group of medical rescue workers, who refused to give his name. The group was there to collect what they estimated to be about 190 bodies — not all of them intact — and that was all, he said.
A nurse who stood nearby the tents set up for the recovery operation said he had been asked to come to help the rescue workers working on the site.
“It’s hard for those people doing this work with the bodies, they can feel the effects both physically and mentally, so I’m here to help in case it’s needed,” he said.
As the bodies were bagged by the rescue workers, people who the rebels said were forensic experts from the Donetsk office of the Interior Ministry walked around examining the scene. But those purported experts wore no recognizable or official markings on their jackets, and they were not allowed to talk to reporters or OSCE monitors. Many police and other Interior Ministry workers in the east have, over the course of the Ukrainian conflict, publicly switched allegiances and moved to the rebel groups, calling into question exactly whose experts they were.
“Our experts are working with very well on this investigation,” Grumpy said. But whose experts were theirs, and when and if more international experts would be allowed to safely and freely access the site, remained an unanswered question as time passed on Saturday.
In a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that investigators must get full access to the site of the downed plane, the State Department said. He told Lavrov that the U.S. is concerned over reports that bodies and plane debris were being tampered with or removed from the site.
Officials who collected body bags did, however, appear to be in uniforms which carried the insignia of the Ministry of Emergency Services. And OSCE monitors seemed satisfied with slightly increased access to the area.
“Our access today was more than it was yesterday,” said Alexander Hug, the deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. The previous day, Grumpy had given the OSCE a similar warning shot, and the observer team left after 75 minutes.
“I get grumpy if I haven’t blown up a Ukrainian tank in awhile,” the pudgy rebel said earlier. “That’s one reason I have this name.”