16 Feb 2015

Bodies, shells and snow in the ruins of Donetsk airport

Warning: blog below contains footage readers may find distressing

Today was very much one if those days when you remind yourself that in wars everyone starts lying well before – and long-after – they start shooting.


“Come to the airport this morning,” said the voice from the rebels’ press office, “we have something to show you. You will like it.”

So it was that a breathless propaganda trip ensued, walking fast and sometimes running along the tank churned frozen mud and snow through the rubble-scape that was once Donetsk airport.

Early on a couple of Kalashnikov rounds were loosed off, clearly designed to spook the more spookable one the assembled media ranks here.

On we walked past the burned-up tail planes of jets on the tarmac. Past the gutted and pock-marked airport hotel. The shell-splashed hangars with torn metal cladding screaming and clanking eerily in the biting wind and snow showers.

Read more: some rebel guns may be silent but Ukraine commanders say there is no ceasefire

It is all a 21st century mini-Stalingrad, highly filmable of course and our escorts knew it. We lapped it up.

There were distant shell bursts and not so distant shell bursts. Then, an explosion in the skeletal ruin of the airport hotel just as the media happened to troop past.

Incoming ordnance? Carefully place bang by the rebels to help their message that the Ukrainians break the ceasefire? I can’t be sure but am inclined to the latter.

Our rebel guides made half-hearted attempts to hurry us along. But what kind of commander leads scores of media into an environment that is anything but 99 per cent permissive?


On it went to the bodies. I saw six. Two by a burned out fighting vehicle with several live shells strewn about them and their hands tied with white electric cable.

They, like the other four some distance away, had been there, frozen, for a considerable period of time. The rebels said they were Ukrainian soldiers. The group of four did not appear to have hands tied.

Instantly my photos of the tied hands have been seized upon by online-propagandists as “evidence” of cold-blooded execution.

Let us be clear. Two frozen bodies with hands tied are evidence that two frozen bodies have hands tied. That’s about where the “evidence” ends.

Read more: death rains down on Ukraine as the clock ticks down to midnight

Were they killed here in this too-perfect film-set position? Were they dressed in the uniforms before or after death? And were their wrists bound before or after death?

Neither I nor any reporter there I suspect, has either the answer or the means to answer these questions.

But after Debaltseve, Donetsk Airport is perhaps the most fought-over piece of ground in this war.

So fought-over of course that the rebel victory here is profoundly pyrrhic: they hold not an airport but a film-set of frozen rubble.

And the hold is genuinely tenuous with firing continuing around here today.

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16 reader comments

  1. Just a name says:

    That’s about where the “evidence” ends.
    Dear Mr. Thompson,
    Concerning the evidence. There is a saying: “If you hear hoofbeats behind you back in steppes near Kakhovka, do not expect to see zebras when you turn around.”
    You get the message or need expanding on it?

    1. Andrij says:

      What nice people are there in the guerillas’ press office,: “we have something to show you. You will like it.”

      Alex, you did not tell us – Did you like it ?

  2. Oleksiy Kolezhuk says:

    “Instantly my photos of the tied hands have been seized upon by online-propagandists as “evidence” of cold-blooded execution.

    Let us be clear. Two frozen bodies with hands tied are evidence that two frozen bodies have hands tied. That’s about where the “evidence” ends.”

    This is disgusting, Mr. Thomson. Really. I can understand that you care about your “accreditation” with those fighters, but such a pathetic attempt to hide the obvious is disgusting. You are not just a robot with a camera, are you? Yes, you are not a judge, I agree. But what you film and tell us IS EVIDENCE for judges to come, whether you want it or not. And I DO hope that judges will come, in due time, and a sentence will be read, loud and clear.

  3. neverwinter says:

    There is after the death of the flexor hypertension. Limb twists at mortis. Therefore it is necessary to fix them immediately after the fact of death.
    Sorry about my Eng.

  4. angus says:

    how gullible are we supposed to be! Next you will tell us that Putin really wants peace and quiet ….surprised you did not find his bank account with HSBC!

  5. Thomas K says:

    Dear Alex,
    If you were so sceptical about this matter, apriori calling it “breathless propaganda”, what was the point in going there? If no matter what you see, you already have a preconcieved idea?

  6. Alex says:

    Evidence imply certainty.
    Without certainty there is no evidence.
    Without evidence guilt can not be established.

    a) If there are signs of bruising and swelling related to interrupted circulation than hands where tied before these individuals have died.

    b) Identification. Who are these men? Are they members of Ukrainian armed forces or have they put on/were dressed in those uniforms for other reasons.

    c) Who killed them?

    Without clear answers to such questions discussion will bog down in theories, suppositions and defamation.

  7. Mr. Pumpkin says:

    How’s the UK in search of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as so many say Tony Blair?
    Why so many victims in Iraq if the search does not yield any results?
    Maybe better picking the problems of his country, than to be the world’s policeman?

  8. Andrij says:

    Let us be clear. Two frozen bodies with hands tied are evidence that two frozen bodies have hands tied. That’s about where the “evidence” ends.

    Mr.Thomson. can you think of any viable reason for rebels to tie hands of the dead corps AFTER they were shot ? You seem to be afraid of what you saw and afraid of the truth behind it. Therefore you put the cynical questions like: Were they killed here in this too-perfect film-set position? Were they dressed in the uniforms before or after death? And were their wrists bound before or after death?
    I do not know about your fellow-reporters there like Gr.Philips, but any cop will have very clear answers to all of this – those prisoners were killed ruthlessly by pro-russian rebels and left there despite numerous requests from Ukrainian side to take their dead to bury.

    1. Olga says:

      Anyone thinking about rebels executing these poor men, do you really think rebels are that stupid? Execute, leave there and bring journalists to make a perfect shot… seriously?
      Alex is right, it is up to investigators to make conclusions.

    2. Dmitriy says:

      In winter its neccesary to tie hands of dead body. So after it froze you would not have problems with transportation. Its common practice actually.

  9. ivan agyeyev says:

    this war will drag on longer then anyone expects

  10. Mike says:

    Mr. Thompson, denying the obvious, about tied hands, of those soldiers, do you believe, that, either they have tied their hands, themselves, before the attack which killed them occured, or have the russians first killed and then tied their hands? Which one is your answer, since you deny, the most logical explanation, that they were captived, had their hands tied, and then were executed. The same way as the Polish officers were executed by the russians in Katyn in 1940, which brings obvious conotations of the way the russians deal with POWs. (I use the word russians, not rebels intentionally – to name the things as they are)

  11. Ian says:

    Dead soldiers with their hands tied behind their backs would be indicative of a war crime having been committed. Another indication would be whether the individuals had been shot in the back of the head (a traditional NKVD form of execution). Was there evidence that they had been shot in the head?

    The only other reason why bodies of soldiers killed in combat would later have their hands tied after death by the rebels/Russians would be a warning by the rebels to Ukrainian troops of what would happen to them if they carried on obeying orders to fight the rebels. It would be quite difficult to arrange frozen bodies or those with rigor mortis for hand tying purposes. Perhaps the rebels hoped that the pictures/videos taken by international journalists would get back to ordinary Ukrainians and give them a bit of a fright.

  12. Robert says:

    So there you all are perpetuating the arms race killing each other so another dividend can be issued to some shareholder on a sofa with a remote to their TV showing censored imagery to further antagonise the whole pot of blood and guts spilling over dirt or Tarmac. Either way bullets don’t have eyes. Don’t you see with your eyes that you are victims of those that strive to keep making weapons for profit. Don’t you have children to go home to instead of killing the much needed fathers in your sights. He who gave you this gun wants you to keep killing for him. Wake up.

  13. BaldurDasche says:

    It’s every bit as likely that someone had intended to remove the bodies. The ones accompanying the story look like they’ve been positioned. If that’s the case to facilitate moving them their limbs might have been secured. Given the state of the airport it surprising they weren’t trussed-up. A dead body is no easy thing to move through rubble.

    It’s also understandable that – given the intensity of the fighting at the airport there were times when no quarter was given, or expected. Calling for a surrender and then having to winkle a resistant enemy out usually means they’re not walking away.

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