HRABOVE, Ukraine — Signs reading “Save the Donbass people from the Ukrainian Army” — a reference to a stronghold of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine — line the road leading to the fields where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed.
They’re a not-so-subtle attempt to remind the throngs of international investigators, reporters and other visitors to this remote area of the separatists’ cause, even as the U.S. and Ukrainian governments accuse the insurgents of firing a Russian-made surface-to-air missile that downed the plane Thursday, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
“I feel for these people (victims),” a separatist fighter who identified himself only as Capt. Jaeger said as he stood guard at the nearby Torez train station Monday, as remains were stored until making their way through Ukraine to Amsterdam, where the flight originated. “But as you can see, my friends have died and are continuing to die.”
Jaeger said accusations that the separatists affiliated with the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic on the Russian border shot down the plane are wrong. He blamed forces loyal to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, as has Russia.
“We simply don’t have the weapons to bring down such a plane,” he said pointing to a dagger-like knife at his waist.” Ukraine’s national government in Kiev “is responsible,” he added.
The separatist leader’s claims and the signs dotting the road to the crash site illustrate how the Russian-backed rebels remain unbowed in the face of intense global criticism of them, not only for allegedly downing the plane but then for mishandling the site and interfering with an international investigation of the crash.
Four refrigerated rail cars carrying the bodies of 282 of the 298 victims of a downed Malaysian jetliner arrived in the city of Kharkiv, controlled by the Ukrainian national government, en route to Amsterdam.
The rebels blocked investigators from examining the scene for days, as they began removing bodies and other evidence from the huge debris field over the weekend, amid eyewitness accounts of decomposing bodies in the hot sun and looting of passenger belongings.
On Monday, they sent nearly all of the bodies of the victims by train to Kharkiv, a city held by Ukrainian troops, for identification and a flight to Amsterdam. They also turned over the data-filled “black boxes” of the Boeing 777 to the Malaysian government early Tuesday.
Even in their stronghold, the separatists’ mishandling of the crash scene has alienated some Donbass residents. Retired schoolteacher Vera Papchenka said the victims’ remains deserved better treatment.
“We want a fair investigation of this tragedy — there was a body of a child here,” she said, grieving at the scene where the remains of the cockpit lay. “We came here today to express our condolences to the children that died here. There were 80.”
Separatist forces have kept local residents from volunteering at the crash site. “They took one of my relatives because he went into the fields to help right after the crash, to see if there were survivors,” said Halina Vasilevna, 40, who lives near the site. “They took him away for three days, and we didn’t know where he was — they beat him up. We were so scared. These separatists — we know they beat people, and they steal vehicles at will.”
She was outraged enough to openly criticize the separatist cause, a rarity in this region. “Very few people here support the separatists,” Vasilevna said. “I want Ukraine to be one nation.”
Some say the rebels’ actions reflect how unprepared they were to manage a crisis with the world’s eyes on them and have undermined sympathy for their cause.
“The rebels are a bit confused because, if they did it, then it was probably by mistake,” said Sophia Pugsley, an expert on European affairs at the London-based European Council of Foreign Relations.
The Ukrainian national government has released the transcript of an alleged taped conversation in which a rebel leader said separatists thought they shot down a Ukrainian military plane.
Pugsley said Russian President Vladimir Putin may distance himself from the separatists as international condemnation of his support for the rebels builds and he faces the prospect of new European Union economic sanctions for failing to end the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Separatists say they won’t give up. “When you start a war, you finish it,” said a rebel guarding the crash site who only gave his name as Capt. Ugriumny. “We will only accept full capitulation and for government to recognize our region (as) separate.”
Jaeger says he has a good reason for not laying down his arms. “This is my homeland,” he said. “We have always lived here peacefully … Then (Ukrainian forces) started to shoot at us. My parents live here. I am just protecting them, my land.”
Serenelli reported from Berlin