In parts, the ground is still crunchy with remaining debris from the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down in eastern Ukraine one year ago, killing all 298 on board and sending a shower of bodies over a swathe of rebel-held territory.
Where the cockpit of flight MH17 landed, a flight manual lays under the baking mid-day sun, legible and fully intact. Nearby, a black luggage tag belonging to vice captain Muhamad Firdaus Bin Abdul Rahim is partially buried in dirt.
"It’s incredible we’re still finding such things," says Oleg Miroshnichenko, the mayor of Rozsypne, a town of around 4,000 within the 15-kilometre wide crash site. "Just last week there was a pair of children’s swimming trunks. They were only this big," Miroshnichenko told me, holding his hands up a few inches apart. Though the catastrophe still haunts the gentle-mannered retired coal miner, Miroshnichenko says life for the town is slowly returning to normal after the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight was shot down with what seems to have been a surface-to-air missile. Debris also fell on the nearby villages of Petropavlovka and Grabovo, the latter of which received the bulk of MH17’s remains.
"This entire area was covered in bodies"
Ukraine and the West accuse pro-Russian rebels of using a Russian-made BUK to shoot down the plane, two-thirds of whose passengers were Dutch, during the height of fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Kiev. Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed Ukraine for the disaster, and Moscow fiercely denies supplying the rebels with the anti-aircraft missile. Last week Russia vetoed a Malaysian proposal to the United Nations Security Council for an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible. Around the world, memorial services have been held for the dead in the lead-up to the crash’s one-year anniversary.
Today, an eerie calm hovers over Rozsypne. A wooden Russian Orthodox cross has been erected beside high, viridian wheat crops. Locals tend to their ambling livestock. And across the sun-drenched field where people fell to their death, small-time miners are busy at work, drilling for coal in thin seams.
"This entire area was covered in bodies," says 33-year-old miner Alexei, who only gave his first name. Stout and bare-chested, with beads of sweat on his brow, he pauses by an unlit shaft to survey the landscape around him. "I never thought I’d be working the very same land, but we need to eat, don’t we?" His co-worker Evgeny, 28, gruellingly drags a tin bathtub full of earth, clawed from the ground below. "This war has made us even poorer," he says above the din of a hissing oxygen tank, needed for the men’s perilous journeys into the pit. Both men had worked at the large, state-run mine in Rozsypne, which was built by the Soviets in the 1950s, but that was destroyed by fighting in July last year, around the same time flight MH17 was downed. At the unregulated mines, cave-ins and accidents are frequent, but the average $50 a month the men each earn make it worthwhile.
Much has happened in the breakaway statelet of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, since flight MH17 was shot down. Trade with the rest of Ukraine, on the other side of the front line, has all but ground to a halt. Unemployment is high. The war, now in its second year, has claimed more than 7,000 civilians and 1,675 Ukrainian soldiers. It has also dealt a severe blow to the region’s once-flourishing coal industry, which straddles both Ukrainian and rebel territory. When not destroyed by fighting, production at major mines has slowed due to diminishing numbers of workers and fewer opportunities to sell. Ukraine’s proven coal reserves rank seventh in the world; before the war, it was the third-largest producer in Europe, after Germany and Poland, with 85 million metric tonnes. Forecasts for this year point to less than half of that.
"After fighting, this was my only other option"
The dangerous business of private mining is not new to eastern Ukraine, but it has mushroomed since rebel authorities in Donetsk legalised the practice earlier this year in a bid to increase their popularity. This includes on the very same field where part of flight MH17 fell. "It comes down to the very simple matter of needing coal," Miroshnichenko says, somewhat resignedly.
Not far from Alexei’s mine, foreman Aleksandr Buyluk threads a metal cable into a wood-lined tunnel. A knee injury in winter forced him to quit fighting on the side of the rebels, leading him to take up coal-mining. "After fighting, this was my only other option," Buyluk says with a toothy smile. He and two others have drilled 30 metres into the ground, with plans to start extracting coal in a month’s time. "There are just no jobs around here," he says. The three workers divide their day into eight-hour shifts, taking turns drilling underground, hauling out clumps of earth and sleeping in a flimsy wooden hut reminiscent of an outback post in the Wild West. After producing 30-40 tonnes a day for about six months, the mini-mine will run out of coal; after that, the men move on to another spot. Within reach sits an untidy heap of wooden planks, a recent exhausted coal pit.
In the more urban part of Rozsypne, near Miroshnichenko’s office, rudimentary signs advertising coal deliveries are posted on trees. A teenager named Sergei strolls past, wearing shorts and a black t-shirt depicting a smiling, winking Putin. Underneath the photo, Russian text reads "All is OK", using a wordplay on Putin’s name. When I ask the 17-year-old why he chose to wear this, he nonchalantly replies: "Because he saved Donbass. You can’t get better than him."