MH17 disaster: Standoff with militiamen at crash site

Fergal Keane reports from the site of the plane crash near Grabove: ''It is the obscenity of war at its most graphic''

On the approach road to the crash site we saw a small white bundle. It was alone, far from the other dead, and surrounded by sunflowers.

A fringe of brown hair was visible at the edge of the sheet. At this moment I knew I was looking at the body of a small child.

Somebody passing by had placed the sheet on the toddler. But when we stopped an ambulance to ask if it would remove the body the driver said: "We are here for the living."

Later they would help in the collection of corpses but this was still early in the morning.

At the main site the bodies were without covering. Some lay alone.

Others were grouped together amid the twisted metal, the bags and cases, the child's playing cards, the guide books, the laptop computer, the duty free whiskey bottle, the woman's red hat.

All of this and so much more lay spread across the fields.

Flag marks location of a body
A man wearing military fatigue stops traffic near the site of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines plane

A militiaman with the nickname "Grumpy" - he was squat and barrel-chested with poor teeth and carried a machine gun - harangued me when I asked if the rebels would now stop fighting.

"You are only here because foreigners are dead," he said.

And the old story was repeated, the same story I have heard on numerous roadblocks.

The Western media were all capitalists doing the bidding of their American and EU masters.

When the OSCE turned up in a convoy led by police cars with flashing blue light "Grumpy" came into his own.

Now he was a man of power. He halted the OSCE and told them they would have to go forward on foot. A standoff followed.

The OSCE monitors went into a huddle. Yes, they would go forward on foot.

Ten minutes later "Grumpy" presented another problem.

The local experts - emergency service workers and local police - were working at the place where most of the wreckage had landed. It would not be possible to go on.

Again the OSCE huddled and the negotiations went back and forth.

And after another five minutes they were allowed to proceed once more.

Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17

They saw what the large contingent of journalists had already seen. Except that now corpses were being placed in black body bags and placed at the side of the road.

One bag had not been closed and a man lay naked and exposed to view. He was a young man, killed in the prime of his life.

I asked a militiaman to close the bag. He looked at me and shrugged.

"For the sake of the man's dignity please close it," I pleaded. He agreed and carefully rearranged the bag so that the man was covered.

All morning long we have watched the retrieval of the dead from the cornfields and the fallow land where MH17 came to earth.

Where will they take the dead now? And what transport will be used?

Rumours rippled through the group of journalists. But nobody knows who is in charge here.

Two days after a major international tragedy it is a group of gunmen who still dictate the terms of life and death.

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