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MH17 monitor speaks

Interview: Neil King, Charlotta LomasJuly 24, 2014

Shortly after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine, OSCE observers headed to the crash site. Michael Bociurkiw from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine talks about what the team has seen so far.

OSCE observers at MH17 crash site
Image: Reuters

DW: Can you describe the situation on the ground and what you have found out at the site of the crash?

Michael Bociurkiw: This is day seven for us here at the crash site. Most days we've come with a group of monitors of about 12. They come in the cycle of the day as we visit various impact areas. We allow the experts some of our resources, we accompany them to have a very close-up view of the site, especially of fuselage.

Today we visited a site which we hadn't visited previously, and it was quite astonishing in the sense that there were very large, intact pieces of fuselage, probably the biggest pieces we've seen so far, including the biggest piece landed in a very heavily wooded area and was concealed almost entirely. In addition, we of course note the scattering of personal belongings, of everything from catering equipment to books to seat cushions.

It's spread over such a wide area, it's almost as far as the eye can see. And then of course notable is that there's no activity, at least that we can see, of any recovery effort. It's basically us, a small security detail, and quite a big group of journalists, so in that sense it's quite extraordinary.

How much access have you had to the site since the crash?

A lot actually. Of course day one was not the best for us, but as the days progressed we were able to see more and more. Yesterday and today I think we've covered more ground than we ever have, and a lot of that has been by foot, because the dispersal pattern of the aircraft requires very meticulous walking over grass and through wooded areas.

Michael Bociurkiw
OSCE observer Michael BociurkiwImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Yesterday, when we were out with the Malaysians, they did take an interest in two or three particular pieces of fuselage, which had puncture holes on them and burn marks which we hadn't seen on other pieces of fuselage. So they took quite an interest in that and took a lot of photographs.

Why is that? What do the burn marks and puncture holes indicate?

We don't know. We're not the experts, they are, and they will be sharing that information with their colleagues and whoever is leading the investigation. But it was enough for us to stop, take note and take quite a few photographs.

Do you have any indication that the sites you've been visiting may have been tampered with by the separatists?

No we don't, and it's important to note that we're not here 24/7. There is a curfew after all, and we can't be here during night hours. But we have noted some marked differences in some of the sites, for example, what I'm looking at right now - there is a fairly big piece of fuselage that has been propped up. Some things have been moved around, but you can't draw any conclusions from that. That could very well have been part of the process of recovering human remains.

The cockpit area, which is another major crash site where basically the cockpit and the start of the first cross section fell and pancaked into a very compact piece. We did observe on one of our first days here that there were men in uniform hacking away at that with a power saw, but once again, we can't draw any conclusions from that.

Have their been any issues with, or barriers in place, preventing you from doing your job so far?

Well, we are constrained in that we have to pay attention to the general security situation. Yesterday we noted, for example, what seemed to be fighter jets overhead. We are brought here by escort, through many, many checkpoints. But on the whole we have been speeded to our destinations and we're able to cover a fair amount of ground.

Some bodies have been recovered and returned to their home countries, but many are still missing. Why is that?

We have heard there are discrepancy in numbers and we are very careful where we walk. We are keeping a sharp eye out for anything we see that may indicate human remains. In fact we did see some small amounts of human remains yesterday and then again today. Hopefully you are getting the sense that it is such a large area, which is topographically diverse, that it would take a huge amount of people or special equipment to spot something.

MH17 Flugzeugabsturz Absturzstelle Ukraine Separatisten 19.7.2014
Some sections of the MH17 crash site, have barely been touched by salvage crewsImage: Reuters

The other factor of course, and I almost hesitate to say this, is that some areas - the area I am looking at right now - are very severely burned. A lot of Jet A-1 aviation fuel came down here and it looks like it exploded on impact. The Malaysians pointed out to us that this is a 17-year-old aircraft so it had aluminium wings, not the modern composite wings, and it appears to them that those wings have melted. So, you can imagine the heat that was generated. It is hard to describe. But it is just a big area of black, with lots of oil still left there.

So what is the OSCE's official stance on the crash now? What happened exactly and who is responsible?

Well, it is not our mandate to say who is responsible or what happened. We have been here on the ground for over three months now as a monitoring mission. We have reported on the gradual escalation here, the occupation of buildings, you may recall we had a very terrible period when eight of our colleagues were being held captive for a month, and then we were tasked to do this. So, we have increased our numbers here for the time being.

Our mission is really to establish the facts, report on them, share that information with the 57 member states of the OSCE, which of course includes Germany, we are continuing to report on the security situation and we are helping to facilitate things. We have relationships with many different entities that hold sway over this area. We have been able to obtain access for four different groups of experts for instance. So that is our role at the moment and we will continue to do this for as long as we are tasked to do it.

Michael Bociurkiw is the spokesperson for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.