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A local resident stands among the wreckage at the site of the crash of Flight 17 on July 19, 2014. / Alexander Khudoteply, AFP/Getty Images


HRAVOBE, Ukraine ?? It must be a mistake -?? that was my first thought upon hearing last week that a civilian plane had crashed nearby. No way. It had to be a mistake.

In the days before, pro-Russian separatists had downed a Ukrainian military aircraft. It must be that, I thought. I hoped.

In this part of the world these days, as the separatists battle Ukrainian forces, dark, thick plumes of smoke covering the sky have become commonplace. Artillery fire, rocket fire, downed planes ?? all just another plume of smoke on the horizon.

But arriving at the fields of nowhere near the town of Hravobe, it was easy to see this wasn't just another day of conflict between warring factions in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border.

Spotlights focused light on the pitch black, potholed path through the fields. The smell of jet fuel was in the air. A young boy lying on the grass by the road looked at first glance as if he might simply be gazing at the stars. But the blood on his face quickly punctured that illusion, and the lifelessness in his eyes spoke to what had happened here that day.

Someone shone a light out into the field and the picture became clear: smoke, debris, travel guides, toothpaste, teddy bears and bodies ?? some burnt, some still strapped into their seats, some with arms crossed in protective poses.

Some separatists were milling around. Some emergency workers were on the scene as well, but not many.

The next morning, Friday morning, I went to the scene early. What had seemed a foggy dream the night before came into clear focus ?? the devastation, the lives lost.

What should have been a crime scene investigation, with hordes of specially trained personnel trying to piece together what had happened, was anything but. The command center was a wooden table on the side of the road manned by emergency services workers. The scene had not yet been cordoned off as far as I could tell ?? anyone who wanted to walk here, could.

As I began exploring, I came across more bodies. I could see that some luggage had been moved. Handbags were open, as were wallets, surrounded by photos and business cards and credit cards. It was clear what was missing: cash and valuables.

Villagers who had witnessed the crash filled in some of the blanks until I could visualize the moments after a missile hit Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the plane broke apart.

In the coming days, the horror and heartbreak of the details on that field ?? and the shabby way the remains and the wreckage were treated ?? triggered mounting outrage around the world. For me, coming here day after day, the sheer carelessness with which the separatists treated the scene was shocking. Even more so was the callousness with which they treated the bodies of the crash victims, They remained where they lay for days, uncovered, exposed to hot sun and rain.

At last, on Sunday, bodies were moved to the side of the road, then to a nearby train station and at last put in refrigerated cars, until they could finally go home.

Some locals, shocked and devastated by what had transpired, grieved over the victims. But pro-Russian separatists, widely believed to have caused this tragedy, just shrugged. Their take: We have our own tragedies. Where were you when our children were being killed?

It's been just over a week since the crash. Foreign investigators are on the scene, and the search for bodies goes on. In the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere, mourning loved ones receive remains and wait: to bury their dead, to find out what really happened, to see that justice is done.

And here, the chaos continues.

Special correspondent Warwick has been covering the conflict in Ukraine since January.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: What I saw at the Flight 17 crash scene

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