Bands of pink and purple sky threw a mountain of mine rock into dark relief as the sun rose over the hills of eastern Ukraine. On a low rise, a rebel fighter scanned the horizon with binoculars, searching long grass for the bodies of those killed in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Walking from the main crash site—a ruin of black grass, scorched earth, and melted aluminum rivulets—Volodya Bogdanov crunched down a gravel trail in his military boots. At a turn, he stopped and walked over to the body of a little girl. He and the other rebels had covered her face the night before with a section of soft, yellow insulation, out of respect for the dead.
"How could they do such a thing? How could they kill a little girl?" he said, a look of shock on his face. Most of the fighters had been up all night, guarding the perimeter of the crash site. His face, like those of the others, was white with strain and disbelief.
His question—which accused the Ukrainian army of culpability—highlighted the confused situation on the ground here. The crash had shocked the rebels, to be sure, and yet it could be seen as deepening their already strong resolve to fight against the authorities in Kiev after losing the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk more than two weeks ago.
The version of events on the ground at the crash site was deeply at odds with the scenario described by American and other officials: that Russian-backed separatists using an SA-11 Buk radar-guided missile launcher had brought down the airliner by mistake. Vitaly Naida, the head of Ukraine's counterintelligence branch, said he had "compelling evidence" that the missile system had been brought over the border from Russia and then pulled out after the passenger jet was downed.
Wiretaps by the Ukrainian security service allegedly show that three Buk-M1 systems were transported into eastern Ukraine for use by the rebels. On one recording, made on July 17, a separatist asks, "Where should we load this beauty?"
When the alleged intelligence officer asks him what he is talking about, referring cagily to a "B ... M," the rebel replies, "Yes, yes, Buk, Buk." In another recording, an alleged Russian intelligence officer in Ukraine spoke with his boss in Russia, saying, "Thank God the Buk-M arrived today in the morning. Things got easier."
Further, on the day of the attack, Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer now serving as military commander of the rebels, claimed responsibility on his VKontakte social media page for the downing of a Ukrainian military transport plane just before it became known that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had been downed. Soon after the news of Flight 17 became widely known, Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre of Strelkov, erased the post.
As rebels remain in control of the crash site, key evidence remains out of reach of investigators, though Dutch forensic experts were able to inspect some of the bodies being stored in refrigerated train cars in the nearby town of Torez today. Flight 17's black boxes remain in the hands of the rebels—though Aleksandr Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, has said the recorders will be turned over to the proper authorities.
Further recordings from the Ukrainian security service purport to show Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, saying, "I have a task—it is not my task. Our comrades from on high are very interested in the fate of the black boxes. What I mean is Moscow ... Make sure that everything that is found doesn't fall into the hands of strangers."
On Monday, the UN Security Council will vote on a resolution that condemns the downing of the plane, demands that those responsible be held accountable, and requires that armed groups not compromise the integrity of the crash site. The resolution, led by Australia—which lost 37 citizens in the attack—will be supported by Russia as long as it does not place blame on Moscow, the Australian Financial Review reported.
Walking through the long grass around the back of the main crash site, Bogdanov—who faces a 15-year prison sentence for carrying arms against the state if captured by the Ukrainian army—described the afternoon of the crash.
"I heard two big claps. Bookh! ... Bookh!" as he sat in his house nearby, watching television. He ran outside. "It fell like a corkscrew, in seconds," he said. He did not know what had downed the plane. Other villagers said they thought they were being bombed. As it happened, the main body of the plane came crashing down across a country lane just a hundred yards from his house.
The massive inferno devoured everything in sight, leaving just the heavy metal of an engine and a landing carriage. The underside of the wings were intact.
Around 3:30 a.m., just as the first light was rising after the crash, the ground was still warm at the crash site. Aircraft aluminum had melted in the heat and re-formed into rivulets of frozen silver across the black ground. Blackened heaps were visible everywhere. Projecting through one was a white spinal column. A femur was visible in another. (This reporter slept on the ground at the crash site for a time and woke up to find that he had been lying near a body.)
Walking past the body of the little girl, Bogdanov and two other rebels circled around the back of the crash site. Though genuinely shocked by the crash, he was still able to talk clearly about the goals of the months-old insurgency.
"How many states do you have there in America? There, one state has one set of laws, and another state has another set of laws. That's what we want here. It's not going to be like we're leaving Ukraine. It will be like in the U.S. We'll be together, but they'll listen to us more. Right now, they don't listen to us at all," he said of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions—once the center of the Soviet coal-mining industry but now fallen on hard times.
"Just gather your weapons and get out of here," he said. "Simply get out of here, and we'll forget about them and they'll forget about us," he said of the government in Kiev. "Just let it go and walk away."
But with a UN Security Council resolution looming, fighting and an artillery barrage raging on the edge of Donetsk from the early morning into the late afternoon today, and access limited to the crash site, it seems unlikely that any of the parties at this table will be able to walk away anytime soon.