“The first toast is for peace,” Vladimir says as he fills four glasses with homemade vodka.
The 28-year-old is sitting with his friends on the airline seats of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. These green, pink, and red cushioned seats were once attached to the Boeing 777 airliner headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On July 17, 2014, shortly after 5 p.m. local time, the plane, carrying 298 people, was shot down over this small village.
The bodies were left in the scorching sun for several days, guarded by pro-Russian separatists armed with AK-47 rifles. On the third day after the crash, locals gathered in the church. “We must do something,” they said. “The bodies can’t just be left here.” The local civil defense forces provided body bags, and the town’s citizens began the macabre task of picking up the remains.
By March, 295 bodies and the plane’s most vital parts were transported to the Netherlands. However, the bodies of three victims have yet to be found and debris still scatters the ground.
From time to time, residents of Grabove come across human bones in their fields. At the crash site, wire and melted debris are embedded in the blackened soil.
A few hundred meters away, the locals have stowed the victims’ belongings in a hangar. There’s a teddy bear, disheveled from rain and show. An economics book, its pages stiff from old dirt. A black boot. A baseball cap. A student’s ID card. In the photo, the boy is smiling, unaware of the fate awaiting him at the end of the school year.