DYNAMIQ IN THE NEWS: MH17: REPORTING IN THE DANGER ZONE

After Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine, an Australian media organisation requested that Dynamiq provide an advisor to accompany journalists reporting on the incident.  The following is an account of that time written by Shaun Filer.

 

It’s been over a year since the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and despite demands for a United Nations tribunal there is still uncertainty as to whether justice will be carried out.

I personally observed the risks taken following the tragedy. In the immediate aftermath, a number of Dutch, Australian and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) personnel arrived in Donetsk, and attempted to reach the crash site through negotiations with Kiev and pro-Russian forces.

In the initial days, Kiev and Donetsk allowed responders and inspectors safe passage, a pledge that they would not be fired on in a 40km exclusion area around the crash site.

For a few days after the agreement was struck, travel through Donetsk, Makiivka, Shaktarsk and onto the crash sites became fairly routine. The number of investigators accompanying the OSCE increased daily, and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) even used a large charter bus as part of their convoy. The bus got them from A-to-B safely before their heart-breaking task in the sunflower fields.

They did, however, experience some delays negotiating the barricades at illegal checkpoints.

This relative safety and routine access to the crash site all changed in the early hours of July 27th, 2014. Working with a group from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), we were travelling towards the main area of wreckage just after dawn.

We’d been partnering with our local support staff for several weeks, and had a very positive relationship with them. We discussed available information, risks, and responses. Before we departed, we always called individuals along the route for up-to-date reports on conditions and potential trouble areas.

Everyone knew that Ukrainian Army forces were preparing for a surge. We’d seen the troop and vehicle build-up in recent days, and troops had told us to expect it “soon”. However, we didn’t expect it to complicate the international investigation efforts so directly.

While passing through Petropavlovka, a small village just 3km from where the cockpit of MH17 fell, one of our support staff noticed a large group of people had gathered. “A lot of people for church?” – I said, because it was Sunday and we were near the local orthodox church.

We were then approached by villagers who told us, “Kiev is attacking”. Sure enough, a few hundred metres from where we stood a large column of tanks and armoured personnel carriers steamed past us towards the city of Shakhtarsk.

Stephen McDonell conducted interviews with the villagers (our support staff translated) and Wayne McAllister captured the story called “Ukraine Crash Site”, for which he would win a Walkey Award.

I did a check of our alternate route out, and with approval from the team, called others to ensure they were aware of the changes – to either cancel their morning convoy or at least check their route.

Too much changed too quickly. There was a breakdown of the ceasefire agreement established around the site. Families fled as word of the military action spread and the shelling intensified. Fortunately, we had interactive maps in the vehicle, so we could identify the direction and estimate the distance of the falling shells to avoid the worst of it on our way out.

We passed the far-side of Shakhtarsk as the shelling reached the centre of the city. Rebels raced forward in heavy trucks carrying armaments to reinforce lines. Civilians lined the streets hoping to find room in a passing vehicle. Some families packed their old Lada vehicles with personal effects, and towed other broken-down Ladas to form peculiar ‘Lada-Trains’ of displaced villagers.

In the coming days, the OSCE, Dutch and AFP continued to work with their pro-Russian rebel escorts to reach the site in this rapidly changing environment. Rebel forces became increasingly anxious. “Near-misses” occurred frequently and the consequence of a single mistake could have cost dozens of Australian lives.

At one point, a pro-Russian rebel escort actually guided a convoy of investigators straight into the ‘Battle for Shakhtarsk’, which had been raging for over a day at that point. Their vehicles were forced to return to Donetsk when they apparently experienced artillery falling in the vacinity of the convoy. This was later confirmed to be ‘danger close’ (within approx 600m).

Shortly after, a small team of Australians, Dutch, OSCE and their rebel escort was actually cut-off from the main group of investigators due to intense artillery fire. They took shelter and waited for the shelling to stop before joining the others.

There were numerous other near-misses, including shelling near the investigators’ accommodation in Donetsk.

By 6 August 2014, the experts left Donetsk and ceased all attempts to visit the site due to safety and security concerns.

The Australians, Dutch and representatives from the OSCE took significant personal risks following the tragedy in an effort to recover remains, personal effects and justice for the families. Their efforts were certainly not in vain.

 

27 July, 2014 - Ukrainian Army Convoy enter the eastern village of Petropavlovka, breaking the exclusion zone around the wreckage of MH17, as nervous villagers look on. (Photos: Wayne McAllister)

 

27 July, 2014 - Ukrainian Army vehicles, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, multiple rocket launcher vehicles pass through the eastern village of Petropavlovka to begin their siege of Shaktarsk, the main connection between Donetsk and Russia. (Photos: Wayne McAllister)

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