HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) — The field outside Hrabove, littered a year ago with bodies and smelling of burnt flesh and plastic, now smells of wild flowers.
But the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 still haunts residents, who remember the bodies that fell from the sky above their sleepy village in eastern Ukraine.
“People came out of their houses to see a boy without the head, who was lying there” on the street, recalled villager Nadezhda Tsyb. “Then I saw a girl: She was coming down from the sky, whirling in the air, then she fell into my neighbor’s vegetable patch.”
All 298 people onboard MH17 were killed when the plane was downed on July 17, 2014, over rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, where government forces and the Russia-backed separatists had been fighting for months. Ukrainian and Western officials said the plane was shot down by a rebel missile, most likely by mistake, and that Russia supplied the weapon or trained rebels to use it. Both the rebels and Moscow denied that.
A preliminary report released in the Netherlands last year said the plane had no technical problems in the seconds before it broke up in the sky after being struck by multiple “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft,” which could have been a missile.
A year after the crash, the families of the victims are still waiting for the results of the investigation, while residents of Hrabove keep finding personal belongings and parts of plane in the area. One local resident pointed to a piece of fuselage, the size of a car hood, bearing the blue emblem of Malaysian Airlines
The body of the boy that fell on the street next to Tsyb’s house was lying there, in the summer heat, for days. Villagers asked rebels who controlled the area to take them away, Tsyb said, because “it was too scary to go out.”
The West accused the separatists of hampering the investigation by blocking access to the site and tampering with evidence. Aviation experts said at the time that the site was compromised since investigators had no access to it during the first few days after the crash. First, rebel commanders blocked OSCE observers from reaching the area, then clashes along the route to the site made it unsafe to travel there. The first sizeable team of investigators arrived at the scene only two weeks after the crash.
Asked about claims that rebels removed or even destroyed some of the bodies, Alexander Borodai, a Moscow spin doctor who headed the rebel government at the time, told The Associated Press that they had to take away bodies because they were decomposing fast in the scorching heat.
“There is a moral, human dimension here: You could not leave the bodies for a long time, and many of the bodies were fragmented,” he said. “We could not just leave them there.”
Hours before the MH17 went down, AP journalists saw a Buk M-1 launcher moving through the rebel-controlled town of Snizhne, carrying four 18-foot (5.5-meter) missiles. Three hours later and six miles west, the plane was shot down.
The rebel denials have been increasingly challenged by resident accounts, observations of journalists on the ground and the statements of one rebel official. The Ukrainian government has also provided purported communications intercepts that it says show rebel involvement in the downing.
Borodai, speaking to AP in his first interview to a Western media organization since returning to Moscow in October, dismissed eyewitness reports and photographic evidence pointing to the rebels’ complicity as fakes. But he seemed to drop his guard in acknowledging that the separatists had no idea that civilian planes were allowed to fly over the war zone.
The rebels had shot down several Ukrainian transport jets in the weeks before the MH17 crash, including an Il-76 on June 14, killing 49 people onboard.
Borodai, who seems to live a comfortable middle-class life in Moscow after going around Donetsk with a posse of burly Chechen gunmen, said he does not really care about the conclusions of the official probe.
“Whether there will be a tribunal or any other official results of the investigation, I have to admit I am already quite indifferent to this story,” he said, sitting in a posh Moscow restaurant. “I just know that it is not our fault that the Boeing went down. It is obvious to me that this is the result of some actions of the Ukrainian side.”
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Albina Kovalyova contributed to this report from Moscow.