TOREZ, Ukraine — The Soviet-era refrigerated train cars were far too weak to combat the stench of death.
At a sleepy whitewashed station in this run-down Ukrainian town, the cars had become a charnel-house collection point for bodies gathered from the rolling fields of wheat and sunflowers. A separatist struggle that began three months ago had already made this easternmost part of Ukraine a war zone; the downing of a passenger jet in the skies above had made the conflict global.
As residents shook their heads at the misfortune that war had brought, a team of Dutch forensic experts bowed their heads in preparation for the task that lay ahead. When rebels opened the door to one railway car, the smell hit one witness 50 feet away. Now, said one woman who lives next to the train station, the world will think that they are “terrorists.”
Four days after 298 passengers and crew members perished in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the leader of the Dutch team, Peter van Vliet, said his inspection had found the bodies in satisfactory condition. “I think that they all can be identified,’’ he said. But the temperatures, he said, were “not ideal.”
The grim-faced rebel guards, meanwhile, glowered at anyone who got too close to the inspection team, and their high-powered rifles left no room for negotiation. At least one wore a mask.
“It’s a total mess,” said Lilia, who lives next to the train station and would give only her first name because she feared for her safety. “We had a peaceful life, and now we are part of something we can’t even understand.”
The conflict in Ukraine makes the head reel: The February ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March. The April takeover of key buildings and towns around eastern Ukraine by local pro-Russian separatists — and their replacement in May by leaders who are mostly Russian citizens.
Now, camouflage-clad rebel fighters keep watch on the roads at dozens of checkpoints that are made with whatever material is handy: rubber tires, concrete blocks and, in some parts of this mining country, mounds of coal. But if the construction is sometimes makeshift, the weaponry is often not. At least one rebel at a checkpoint on Monday was carrying a sophisticated sniper rifle and had a paratrooper’s insignia on his left shoulder.
Their equipment appears to be getting more advanced — culminating, perhaps, in the Buk M-1 antiaircraft systems that Secretary of State John F. Kerry this week blamed Russia for supplying to the rebels. U.S. and Ukrainian officials suspect that such a missile was used to down the Boeing 777-200 on Thursday.
In this hard-bitten coal-mining settlement, named after French communist politician Maurice Thorez, a grocery store and several two-story concrete-block apartment buildings clustered around the whitewashed station, sizzling in the heat.
At least a dozen heavily armed rebel guards watched warily over the Dutch inspectors, who were accompanied by another group, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The rebels led the convoy when the inspectors sped away in five white SUVs.
At the main crash site, near the town of Hrabove, about 50 miles east of Donetsk and 25 miles from the Russian border, the scene Monday was equally grim.
A dark-green dump truck rumbled past, burdened with more remains zipped into body bags. Children’s playing cards, a Converse sneaker and other remnants of victims’ lives lay scattered on the side of a road.
The three Dutch forensics inspectors said they were impressed with the efforts to recover bodies, but they were uncertain whether the site had been too compromised to conduct a meaningful investigation of the attack on the plane.
Local emergency workers who collected the bodies “did a hell of a job in a hell of a place,” said van Vliet, the main Dutch inspector.
The chances seemed slim for a truly impartial investigation. Plane parts were scattered across vast square miles of fields, and many appeared to have been touched. Parts of one engine lay in a charred area where fresh truck tracks crisscrossed the remnants. Guard tape had been strung up, then knocked down, and local residents idly walked through the site. One part of the cockpit and nose cone appeared to have been “split or moved apart,” an OSCE spokesman said.
Workers from the Donetsk regional office of the Ministry of Emergency Situations said they had been keeping an eye on the site for days. But they said they were close to wrapping up their work and would soon pile up the belongings that remained.
“Today’s the last day,’’ said Igor, a worker who would not give his last name or say where the suitcases and other belongings would be taken. “No one will stay here overnight.’’