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.

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“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?

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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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