Two weeks after a missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, an international team of investigators Thursday reached a wreckage site in eastern Ukraine that remains bitterly contested between government forces and pro-Russia separatist rebels.
For the families of the victims, it was an important start in locating and recovering bodies still rotting in the fields and building a case against those who perpetrated the tragedy.
Harun Calehr, the uncle of two young victims of the disaster, said by phone from his home in the U.S. that he was happy investigators had reached the site. But Calehr said he remains concerned that dozens of bodies haven’t been retrieved.
“It’s been two weeks. I just hope they can get there now and do their job,” Calehr said from Houston. “The only thing keeping me sane is being religious, hoping for something positive.”
As the investigators — two apiece from the Netherlands and Australia — made an initial survey of the area shortly after lunchtime, mortar shells rained down on fields in a nearby village. Despite the lingering signs of risk, the team called their one-hour inspection a success.
For days, clashes along routes to the wreckage site had kept investigators from reaching the area to find and retrieve bodies that have been lying in open fields where midsummer temperatures have hovered around 90 F.
But after negotiations, the investigators were allowed through the final rebel checkpoint before the wreckage site at the village of Rozsypne by a rifle-toting militiaman who then fired a warning shot to prevent reporters from accompanying the convoy on Thursday afternoon.
Australian Federal Police commander Brian McDonald said the visit was only a preliminary survey before more comprehensive recovery work.
“We had a quick inspection of the site. Today was more about an assessment of the site than it was of a search,” said McDonald, who was in police uniform.
Up to 80 bodies are still at the site, said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. from Ukraine.