The memory of hell among the sunflowers
Nearly 300 people died when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine two months ago, possibly downed by a missile. Rescue workers, local residents and journalists rushed to the site - what they saw had a deep and lasting impact.
Barrelling down a highway in eastern Ukraine, two days after the plane came down, we're heading to the crash site of flight MH17. We're covering the big story and, truthfully, I'm excited to be there. I'm buzzing. But the feeling doesn't last.
Our vehicle slows only for roadblocks, manned by bored-looking paramilitaries wearing the standard mixture of sportswear, camouflage and fake designer sunglasses. We're waved through without a second glance. They've become used to the letters TV taped on car windscreens.
It is ever clearer to me that there was - and remains - a partition in time for all those touched by the event - life before MH17 and life afterwards.
At the wheel is Alex, a cabbie from Donetsk who - on the surface at least - has been doing quite nicely for himself of late, earning top dollar translating and transporting various media around.
But he seems off-key now. He can't quite focus on where he is, or what he is doing. Alex is returning to the crash site for maybe the fifth time.
"How is it?" I ask him.
"It's…," Alex trails off.
"It's like…," he tries again.
Minutes pass. We slow down to negotiate yet another checkpoint, and I think he's forgotten my question.
"Like hell, Darius," he suddenly blurts out. I jump back to reality. "So come and see our hell in sunflowers."
The contrast between the bucolic calm of the softly rolling landscape, the golden yellow flora and the charred, metallic ruins of the aircraft only adds to the surreal awfulness.
Flight MH17 suffered a huge explosive decompression when shrapnel - most likely from a Buk anti-aircraft missile - ripped into it at 33,000ft (10,000m), sending debris and passengers plummeting into a field of sunflowers near an otherwise unremarkable village called Grabove.
Those on board probably died in an instant, mercifully. But their bodies came tumbling through the air at several hundred miles per hour. At those speeds, clothing is ripped off, ligaments and tendons snap, limbs are smashed and contorted.
Those first on the scene met an impossibly grisly sight - corpses lay semi-clad or naked, splayed in grotesque and unnatural contortions like an image of the afterworld by Hieronymus Bosch.
And the smell. Burned jet fuel mingled with that old journalistic cliche - 'the unmistakable stench of death'.
These corpses lay exposed for days. There's no dignity in any of it. Three days in the summer sun and the dead putrefy quickly.
Then the banality of the passengers' belongings - football books, touristic souvenirs, those colourful little suitcases children can sit on in airport queues, Lego and sticker books.
Eighty of the victims were children. I feel morally contaminated just looking at it. Even breathing the air feels wrong. The foul odour clings to your clothes, your hair and your skin.
I see haggard, exhausted first responders gathering the remaining corpses and body parts, bagging them up. They load these sorry packages onto a dump truck-turned-hearse.
These men have been here for days, they barely speak to one another anymore. Nothing can have prepared them for this. Their lives have been wholly altered.
Alex, the driver, stands off to one side, talking to a local man whose house lies completely untouched. "Lucky" doesn't come close - had the aircraft travelled another 20 metres, his home and everyone inside would have been obliterated.
The man is also a paramilitary. He has a Kalashnikov rifle in his hand. He stares mournfully at the hulking remnants of the Boeing.
"If you'd come here before, I would have said to go down that road. There's the most beautiful fishing lake down there - we'd go swimming with the kids," he says.
There's a large wooden cross next to his house, and Alex - who's a devout Christian - mumbles something about Jesus having spared the hamlet. But he's less clear as to why the divine powers sanctioned the slaughter of 298 innocents here.
Weeks later, back in London, I awake one morning with a sudden, overwhelming sorrow. I cannot face the day. I don't want to go to work, or play with my children. Or eat. Or be.
It wasn't trauma - it felt more like utter heartbreak. Before MH17 and after MH17.
I think of all this often - the 298 people who died in a split second; those who couldn't protect their children; those left grieving.
I think too of the rescue workers and villagers, who'd had to collect smouldering wreckage and decomposing bodies. And of Alex.
And of all those others whose lives were mournfully interrupted after MH17 smashed into a field of sunflowers, one fine summer's day.
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