Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 investigation combines horror and humanity

n Federal Police Senior Sgt Rod Anderson stands where the bodies of the MH17 victims were brought once they landed in the Netherlands. Photo: Kate Geraghty AFP officers and their Dutch counterparts collect human remains from the MH17 crash site. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The Hague: If you were at war, you’d want somebody like Rod Anderson in the trenches, right beside you. Nuggety in stature, he’s like a coiled spring. He’s taciturn, eyes darting around the room as he mulls each question, looking for the trick.

At times he’ll pinch a finger and thumb, then draw them across his pursed lips: “Ain’t saying nothing.”

Maybe he’s refusing to divulge a lapse in a challenge he accepted from his daughter to reduce his sugar intake. Or he thinks he’s being asked to reveal too much about the interior of the recovery operation and the criminal investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – a gruelling, ongoing operation that has been kept under a tight cone of silence imposed by and other countries.

But in a series of interviews in The Netherlands and , Anderson and other n Federal Police colleagues who were on the MH17 front line have given rare glimpses into a complex international operation, in which the emotional challenge was underscored by Anderson’s AFP colleague Dr Sarah Benson, who told me: “We were there to see justice done … and we needed to find our own.”

It’s difficult to remove the “us” and “our” factor in the MH17 saga. Disasters sometimes becomes a prism through which the humanity of many is judged –  the victims; those who deal with the injured and the dead; and, particularly in times of war, that of the other side, which inevitably is portrayed in unflattering terms.

But senior AFP officers attached to the MH17 investigation seem to go out of their way to acknowledge and to defend the humanity of the Ukrainian rebels who were accused of bringing down the aircraft and of the Ukrainian emergency services that mounted a rebel-controlled recovery operation in the immediate aftermath of the crash, in which 298 passengers and crew died on July 17, 2014.

Anderson is irritated by then prime minister Tony Abbott’s “bring ’em home” sloganeering at the time of the crash – because of an implication that these n dead were more important than others and/or that the response of Anderson and his colleagues somehow would be different to how they had performed at a litany of earlier disasters.

Referring to his between-disasters role investigating fatal car crashes around Canberra, Anderson said: “I attend all  deaths on ACT roads – and I don’t think one loss of life is more tragic than another. Forty together in the air, or one on the highway – they’re all tragic.”

In The Hague I saw AFP officers break from meetings on a ghoulish aspect of the crash to make cheerful phone calls to spouses in , and to say goodnight to their children on the other side of the world. Their desks were littered with family snaps and mementos of home – stuffed kangaroos and koalas, the Aussie flag.

A gut-wrenching contrast to all this, however, was a collage of the faces of ns who would not be phoning home – the 41 MH17 victims from . Nodding to the poster, a copy of which hangs in each n workspace at various investigative locations in the Netherlands, Detective Superintendent Andrew Donoghoe said: “They’re a small group of the whole 298 who died, but just seeing them fires us up.”

More than a year on, the verdict of these n investigators on the local Ukrainian recovery operation – by the rebels and local emergency responders – is cast in kinder, more forgiving language than was apparent in an avalanche of criticism at the time of the crash.

After foreign investigators, Anderson among them, took control of a refrigerated train on which the rebels had ordered that the victims remains be stored, a Dutch official said that as many as 100 bodies were missing, fuelling angry demands by officials from the victims’ countries for the warring sides in Ukraine’s separatist conflict to allow a more thorough search by investigators from the Netherlands, , Britain and Malaysia.

Ultimately, the foreign teams – sometimes a handful, sometimes as many as 80 – spent no more than 18 hours actively searching the 45 square-kilometre crash site. The Dutch claim of 100 bodies missing was perplexing, because when they unloaded what became known as “the train of the dead” at Kharkiv in Ukraine’s far north-east, the body bags in which the victims’ remains had been packed were not opened before they were airlifted to the Netherlands.

Anderson too was concerned that not all the bodies had been found – though more cautious than his Dutch colleague, the n cop figured privately that about 50 or 60 were missing. Either way, the figures were a condemnation of the local search  and recovery effort and the withdrawal of the foreign search teams was couched in terms of a worsening security threat; and conveying no sense that the much-maligned  initial Ukrainian search might have been as thorough and professional as was needed.

“We [searched] swiftly and thoroughly, while it was safe to do so,” ‘s prime ministerial envoy Angus Houston said in a statement announcing the abrupt abandonment of the first foreign sweep of the crash site early in August 2014. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who lost 193 of his countrymen in the crash, said it had become too dangerous for foreign search parties to remain in the region.

Without referring to the Dutch estimate of bodies missing, Rutte added that an opportunity to interview a Ukrainian military doctor involved in the initial response “had changed the recovery team’s perception of an earlier [search] effort undertaken by local authorities [and] fortunately more was done after the disaster than we thought until now”.

Fast-forward to mid-September 2015, and t Anderson is sitting in a conference room at the n Embassy in The Hague, telling me: “The Ukrainians were not uncaring people. It was as much a tragedy for them as for the victims. There was a lot of talk of disrespect for the dead because of the fighting – that was not the case.”

Drawing a comparison between the use of refrigerated rail wagons in Ukraine and that of refrigerated trucks in the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, Anderson observed: “They were searching within 20 minutes of the crash and recovering remains – that’s a good response, a good job … it was done fairly well … with the level of expertise and equipment that they had, the locals did the best they could do.”

Donoghoe, now in his second rotation as head of the AFP team in The Hague, told me:  “The victims were treated with respect and dignity in difficult circumstances.”

Interviewed separately, his colleague Simon Walsh, who heads the AFP’s disaster victim identification operation, agreed – “there was no evidence to suggest otherwise”.

As shown in media reports, the Ukrainian search and recovery effort was amateurish, Walsh said, “but what we have established since is that so many victims were successfully identified on the basis of what [the Ukrainians] had collected, and subsequent searching did not reveal huge amounts of human remains that they had missed.

“The original [Ukrainian] work was done to a high standard in terms of the victims’ human remains being treated with respect and dignity.”

Were the locals and the rebels as humane as the victims’ families and friends might have expected? “From what I’ve observed, that’s a fair assessment,” he said.

The disaster victim identification process, carried out at a Dutch military base at Hilversum, near Amsterdam, also cast doubt on widespread media reporting of looting, particularly of the jewellery worn by victims.

Walsh, a member of the Identification Board that reviewed and formally ratified each identification decision, said that a regular element among what are called “secondary identifiers” was jewellery worn by the victims –  “clearly it had not been looted”, he told me.

And in cases in which the victim was not wearing jewellery described by families as proof of identification, Walsh said there were explanations apart from looting for its absence – perhaps the victim had opted not to wear the piece on the day of the flight or the jewellery might have come away from the victim as a result of the crash.

“Yes, there were cases of the jewellery being present. I can’t say if the presence was high or low; and there were cases of no jewellery, but not sufficient to substantiate claims of a high or extraordinary amount of looting.”

Through a day of interviews in The Hague, the Canberra traffic cop Anderson cloaked himself in a steely, dispassionate professionalism. But the following day, as we shared the back seat of a cop car for the drive to Hilversum, he allowed a fleeting glimpse of his own humanity.

“Mate, who do you debrief to? Who do you talk to?” he asked quietly, referring to my reporting from the charnel houses of serial wars. When I talked about the therapeutic effect of writing, he volunteered that he had taken to making audio recordings of what he saw and felt, which he’d then commit to paper as he sought to make sense of it all.

Sadly, though, some things never make sense.

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