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Looking for answers

Kitty Logan, UkraineNovember 10, 2014

As the Dutch remember the victims of downed flight MH17, investigators are still trying to piece together the tragedy and provide some answers nearly four months on. Kitty Logan reports from Ukraine.

Flight MH17 debris and stuffed animals placed by mourners
Image: DW/K. Logan

The Dutch recovery team has a grim and painstaking task: to slowly search through the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and try to find human remains or personal items buried in the charred and twisted metal. They walk somberly through the crash site in a line, until one raises a hand to indicate they may have found something of interest. A careful fingertip search follows.

Five bodies were discovered here in recent days, several months after the crash on July 17. The Dutch government has warned it may be difficult to find the remaining nine missing people, but the searches will continue. Most of the on board Flight MH17 were Dutch.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine is helping to facilitate the visits to the crash site for the Dutch investigators. "There is of course still hope that more human remains can still be found, so that more people can be identified, so that all families can get back their loved ones," Alexander Hug, deputy head of the OSCE monitoring mission to Ukraine, told DW. "What then remains is of course the removal of the debris."

Debris still lies where it fell

Flight MH17 debris in a field
Much of the airplane debris is still scattered over several square kilometersImage: DW/K. Logan

That process should begin in the coming days and weeks. Much of the debris lies scattered in the fields, exactly as it fell, over an area of several square kilometers. There are seats, oxygen masks, parts of engines and the undercarriage and even the plane's tail fin dispersed across the countryside.

The main point of impact of the central part of the plane still smells of burnt fuel, but the site is now desolate, windswept and cold. Local residents have placed teddy bears by the wreckage to mourn the children who died. A wreath at the roadside expresses sorrow for those who lost their lives.

Somewhat belatedly, investigators are putting signs up to protect the site. They also post notices on nearby telegraph poles to appeal to local people to come forward with information. But most here are weary of this international incident that has changed their lives - and their village - forever.

Final investigation could take a year

The relatives of the dead still desperately want answers. An initial report by the Dutch Safety Board indicated that the plane was hit by fragments, causing it to break up. Experts believe those fragments could have been a surface-to-air missile.

The final investigation could take up to a year to complete, but in the mean time Bellingcat, a private team of investigators, has released its own report based on photos and videos on social media. It says evidence shows there was a Russian missile launcher in the area on the date of the crash.

A wreath with pink flowers near the Flight MH17 crash site
Investigators have appealed to local people for helpImage: DW/K. Logan

"While it's clear the Russians supplied a Buk missile launcher to the separatists that was filmed on July 17 in areas close to the crash site of MH17, I think it's ultimately up to the work of the official MH17 investigation team to establish where the missile was fired from, something they will hopefully be able to establish with information that's not in the public domain," Bellingcat's Eliot Higgins told DW.

Some of that useful information includes radar images from the date of the crash that could help determine what was fired when and from where. Evidence on the ground is also critical, but investigators are still having trouble gaining access to all areas of the crash site. Exchanges of artillery fire echo across the fields from a short distance away. This recovery mission may yet take a long time to complete.