The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Ukrainian village near MH17 crash site, residents fear more death is coming

Lidiya Goryushko puts her seven-week old granddaughter to sleep in Petropavlovka, Ukraine, the week before war engulfed their small village. (Michael Birnbaum/The Washington Post)

War came this week to Lidiya Goryushko's eastern Ukrainian village, where wreckage fell earlier this month from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Late last week, she and I spoke over the course of two long afternoons under the grape arbor in the well-kept garden that serves as the central hub for her bustling family. The attack on the plane was an unfolding nightmare but the explosions and gunfire that we could hear were of a still-distant battle.

“We just want to be left alone to have a quiet life,” she told me at the time. “We don’t want to be touched, and we don’t want our children to be killed.”

But after Ukrainian tanks rolled through their tiny village of Petropavlovka Monday and rebels started digging fortifications just down the road, the blasts have drawn far too close for comfort.

“We are in the very center of events,” Goryushko said by telephone on Tuesday. “We heard that there is going to be an attack, and we are trying to do something because the army is going to move forward. So we are trying to prepare stores in our basement, so that we can survive.”

Goryushko and her family, seven people in all, including her 10-year-old grandson and her seven-week-old granddaughter, all hurry to the basement every time they hear explosions.

Goryushko’s elderly guard dog, who last week was playing with a kitten in the family yard, is now hiding too, and the dog’s barks could be heard over the shaky telephone connection on Tuesday. Goryushko said that they had also packed away the cows whose milk serves as the family’s financial sustenance.

“I’m scared for my grandchildren most of all. I just want them to be alive, that’s all. And then I can think about myself,” she said.

The family hoped that living within the debris zone would protect them from the fighting that has been closing in from all sides in recent weeks. Goryushko said then that she had no thoughts about leaving.

By Monday, when she changed her mind, it was too late. Tanks flying Ukrainian colors rolled down her family’s narrow mulberry-tree-lined street Monday morning, Goryushko’s daughter Ludmila said. Later, rebels with guns drove down the road, warning residents not to go outside, Ludmila said.

“We cannot go anywhere because we don’t have fuel for the car,” she said. “We have to stay. There aren’t any taxis, no cars. We tried to call a taxi, but they don’t want to come here. No buses. No minibuses.”

Now, Ludmila said, the family worries that sitting in the debris zone, rather than protecting them, actually makes them targets.

“We have been hearing that the Ukrainian army wants to destroy all evidence that remains on the site” of the crash, Ludmila said. “And that’s why they’re advancing. That’s the rumor. That’s what people are saying.”

The Ukrainian military has denied through a spokesman in Kiev that it is fighting within a 25-mile zone surrounding the main crash site in Hrabove, Ukraine. Ukrainian officials all the way up to President Petro Poroshenko have vowed to protect evidence on the site, which until this week was firmly within rebel control, and to make it accessible to investigators. There is no evidence that the Ukrainian military is purposely attempting to destroy evidence from the downing of the Boeing 777-200, which killed all 298 passengers. Goryushko’s village of Petropavlovka is just five miles away from the main crash site in Hrabove.

When Flight 17 was shot down on July 17, a shrapnel-pocked exterior piece of the cockpit fell on Ludmila’s garden, killing her cat. The family set the fragment out on the road, thinking it would be of great interest to investigators. It has sat there ever since. Now, Ludmila said, the family wonders if they should hide it to protect themselves from anyone who might try to blast away evidence – and to blast away any neighbors who might be in the vicinity.

“If they really want to destroy the evidence, then it’s really close to us,” she said.

Goryushko said last week that she could not believe her beloved sunflower-filled countryside had been transformed into a place of war.

“In our century, it’s impossible to understand how things like this are happening,” she said. “Imagine going to bed at night and not knowing whether you’ll wake up in the morning. There is a black spider in your soul.”

“Pray for us,” she said Tuesday.