Violence On The Ground Hobbles MH17 Investigations

Nearly two weeks since a Malaysia Airlines flight was downed over eastern Ukraine, fighting in the region continues to delay the start of an investigation. For more, Audie Cornish speaks with Paul Sonne, the Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Ari Shapiro, sitting in this week.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Debris from the downed Malaysia Airlines flight is spread across acres of landscape in Eastern Ukraine. The passenger jet, believed to have been brought down by a surface-to-air missile, turned some three villages into a massive crash site. The ongoing fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government has prevented international investigators from making much progress in the last two weeks. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal have attempted to catalog and map the debris using satellite images and pictures from journalists on the ground. We're joined now by Paul Sonne, Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, for more on this effort. Paul Sonne, welcome to the program.

PAUL SONNE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: The U.S. and other countries have repeatedly said that they believe the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a missile, so what exactly can be gained from mapping the remains like this?

SONNE: I think what mapping the remains can tell us is it can show us where pieces of debris are in relation to one another, which might tell us a bit about how they fell and how the impact took place in the first place. But we can also learn a bit about - from the individual pictures themselves. For example, two of the pictures that we have in our map show evidence of what seems like shrapnel which would give you a sense of it being a missile rather than something else that brought the plane down.

CORNISH: Help us understand the conflicting reports here. On the one hand, journalists like yourself are out there kind of taking pictures of whatever they want. On the other hand, you have an investigation that's moving very slowly.

SONNE: Yeah, so actually this is a very interesting question because as far as I understand, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has actually gotten very good access to the site with the exception of the first day they showed up, which was the day after the crash where their time there was limited to 75 minutes, and they said that they weren't given access to every piece of the crash site that they had wanted to see. So after the sort of first day standoff that they experienced with some of the rebel militants, it did seem like they were getting pretty full access to the crash site. The problem was that the investigation team, which is now being led by the Netherlands, wasn't ready and didn't, in fact, really arrive in Donetsk until a few days ago. And after they finally assembled in Donetsk, it took, you know, about a week or more. Then, fighting had already started to encompass the crash site. And the reason that they're not getting access to the crash site now is not because the rebels are not allowing them to go to the crash site. It's because the crash site has turned into an active, violent fighting zone.

CORNISH: Now you've also reported on the trauma for people in the local villages and this is a fairly poor area of eastern Ukraine. What's it been like for them? What kind of stories have they told you?

SONNE: You know, it's been really harrowing for them. And when I was reporting on this, one the things that kind of made me a bit mad was how a lot of people were writing on instances of looting. The majority of the people I spoke with there - that was not the case at all. A lot of people were bringing things to the town hall, bringing things to emergency workers - the problem is - is that there wasn't really an organized system for people to hand over things that they found. And beyond that, the people on the ground - rather than being looters, I would characterize them as, you know, equal victims in this situation because not only were they living in a warzone - not only were they living in that situation, then suddenly they have the remains of this Boeing 777 and its 298 passengers fall on their town. And basically, bodies fell on their homes, in their yards, on the street. Pieces of the plane fell on their homes. In one case a body fell through a woman's roof. You know, people, then, later on - a day later or two days later would find pieces of bodies in their gardens or on their farms. And because there was a lot of chaos going on and there wasn't the same kind of emergency response effort that you would've gotten if they weren't in a war zone, basically a lot of stuff remained for a long time and was never really picked up. And even today as they're fighting in this area, pieces of the plane are lying everywhere.

CORNISH: Paul Sonne - he's Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. We spoke to him about the paper's investigation into the site of the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 17. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

SONNE: Thanks for having me.

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