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Six years on, rescue workers recall the horror of MH17 crash site

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A part of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at the crash site in the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk
A part of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at the crash site in the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk   -   Copyright  AFP
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Ukrainian rescue workers have spoken of the harrowing scene they faced after the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, six years ago today.

The plane, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was hit by a missile over war-torn eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people.

Anton Hurhan, who heads up the rescue division of Ukraine's emergency service (DSNS), was in his early 20s at the time. He described the sight that confronted him when he arrived at the scene of the wreckage.

Credit: Emil Filtenborg
Anton HurhanCredit: Emil Filtenborg

"I cannot compare it to anything else that I have ever seen," he said. "I tried to turn off my emotions because I knew that if it was not for us, no one would do this job. I understand that they needed to be found for their relatives, so I just turned off my emotions and kept looking."

For instance, the 28-year-old said he saw a row of six seats sitting in the Donbas soil. On two of them a mother with her child.

His colleagues had the same mental fight that he did. Those that couldn't control their emotions were replaced, he added.

Taras Solodovnyk, 49, was also there, trying to help recover bodies and make sure all their personal belongings were collected.

"The search was over tens of kilometres and we were divided into searching groups, and if we found anything, we needed to place a sign to show where it was," said Solodovnyk, who is deputy head of DSNS' response management division.

"Of course, because of the numbers of people killed, [and] the scale of the crash, it is not like anything else I have ever experienced."

The battle for MH17 justice goes on

The disaster on July 17, 2014, happened in the Donbas region, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists. At the time, they were at war with Ukrainian government forces, a fight sparked by Russia's annexation of Crimea. The conflict is still ongoing today and more than 13,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.

Dutch investigators published a report claiming MH17 was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile. Both Russia and the pro-Russian separatists deny involvement. The Dutch Joint Investigation Team (JIT) concluded Russia was behind the attack, and that "all the vehicles in a convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russia armed forces". Russia claims the missile was produced back in 1986, was owned by Ukraine, and that this means it has no involvement in the downing of the plane.

Three former member of the Russian military, and a Ukrainian, pro-Russian separatist commander have been charged with being involved in the shooting of the plane and the murder of all on board. They are on trial in absentia at a Dutch court. None of them has been extradited to the Netherlands face the accusations.

Earlier in July, the Dutch government decided to take Russia to the European Court of Human Rights for its alleged role in the downing of MH17. The Netherlands had 193 of its citizens on board the plane.

"Achieving justice for 298 victims of the downing of Flight MH17 is and will remain the government's highest priority," Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said. "By taking this step today... we are moving closer to this goal."

Russia has questioned why the European Court of Human Rights is suddenly involved in the case. President Vladimir Putin told reporters in 2019 that he has seen no evidence of Russian involvement.

Personal belongings 'were not taken'

Back at the regional headquarters of DSNS in Mariupol, Solodovnyk and Hurhan do not want to cast judgment on who is responsible.

"I have no opinion about this because I am no expert and have no right to judge," says Hurhan. "Professionally, I cannot judge anything or make any conclusions because my job was different."

However, immediately after the downing of MH17, several people, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, complained about the 'picking through' of victims' personal belongings. There was concern that much evidence was being removed. It is not something that either Solodovnyk or Hurhan said they saw, but they cannot rule out that it happened.

"I did not see anything like that, judging on what I saw, because the victims still had gold rings on their fingers and so on,' says Hurhan, who also found an intact laptops and souvenirs.

"We took everything to a special tent," said Solodovnyk. "Purses and computers. All were taken."

Their accounts of what happened support other reports that claim the looting was not as bad as first reported.

Hurhan explained the main task of rescue teams was to collect everything so that the identification process would be more straightforward. Everything, such as clothes and documents, was, therefore, collected and stored.

Hurhan remembers finding photo albums with pictures of Asian victims' families and friends. Passengers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines had also been on board MH17.

The renewed push for peace

The photo albums are something that Hurhan remembers vividly. He remembered one that was open and said that looking at the faces of friends and family in those pictures made a real impact on him.

The photographs of the wreckage MH17 circulated around the world, but for Solodovnyk and Hurhan, it is their own mental images that they have had to deal with. They both now want to put it behind them. However, when asked to describe what they saw, they cannot help but recollect the horror all over again.

Solodovnyk said that he tries "not to think about it" and that he feels fine today. He said that it was something that he "had to deal with" at the time as part of any rescue situation. However, they both said that MH17 was something extraordinary.

"I think that like anyone going through this, it took time. It was still with me for some time, but as time went by, I feel a lot better," says Hurhan.

Credit: Emil Filtenborg
Taras SolodovnykCredit: Emil Filtenborg

While MH17 has faded in some people's memory, and the trials are underway, the war in Ukraine is still active. The frontline is only around ten kilometres away from Mariupol, where Euronews met with the two rescue workers. Every day, there are new reports of shelling in small villages close to the front, but the fighting is much less intense than it was back in 2014 and 2015.

Since the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected last year, there have been renewed efforts for peace both in the Normandy Format, consisting of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, and in the Minsk negotiations, involving Russia, Ukraine, and the two separatist republics.

"As a citizen of this country, I am against any violence and military action. War is always bad, and the only result is blood and tears. So, if it were for me, I would stop it, but it is not me who decides," said Hurhan.

"The war is still going on, and I hope some decision will be taken to end it, so that we can find closure," said Solodovnyk, "People suffer, and something needs to be done."