Flashback #Star50: Grief over MH17 tragedy lingers on


FROM the cries of a little girl to the sounds of gunshots, assistant chief photographer Kamarul Ariffin went through an emotional roller-coaster during his time in Ukraine to cover the MH17 tragedy.

He spent two weeks in Donetsk city, capturing images of the horror of the aftermath.

Malaysians were still reeling from the disappearance of flight MH370 four months earlier when the country was once again shaken by news that MH17 was shot down over Ukraine while on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014.

All 298 people on board MH17, including 43 Malaysian passengers and crew members, were killed.

Debris from the wreckage was found scattered over an area of about 50sq km.

For Kamarul, the Donetsk assignment was harrowing from the get-go.

Together with a colleague from The Star, they went to the wreckage site four times.

“I felt the sorrow,” he said.

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Once, when he aimed his camera at a pair of child’s shoes, he heard the sobs of a little girl.

“I looked around but there was no one,” he said. Later, when he checked the video footage, no crying was heard.

All the bodies had been removed when The Star team arrived.

“But the smell of death lingered,” Kamarul recalled.

And it pained him to see personal belongings, such as a MAS stewardess uniform and a Hari Raya card, strewn on the ground. (The crash happened two weeks before Hari Raya.)

Throughout his time in Donetsk, he was mostly in a bullet-proof vest due to the presence of snipers.

“Once, our driver abandoned us when he saw a Russian soldier. I was taking photos at the wreckage site, near a sunflower field. So, we crouched down, hiding beneath the tall sunflowers.

“The driver came back for us about half an hour later, fortunately.”

On one occasion during an interview with rebel chief Sergei Kavtaradze, Kamarul had just got his camera rolling when the Ukrainian told him to stop. He had seen the flickering of the camera light, so he knew it had been switched on.

“Can you stop your video?” he asked Kamarul.

And instantly, Kavtaradze’s bodyguard cocked his weapon, aiming it at Kamarul.

Kavtaradze, however, allowed his pictures to be taken.

The interview was held at the top floor of the rebel headquarters building in Donetsk.

There was shelling from a distance before the press conference began.

Throughout his time in Ukraine, Kamarul would not leave the hotel after 9pm to avoid putting himself in a dangerous situation.

“But the overall situation was not that scary,” said Kamarul, who was in Libya in March 2011 to cover the anti-government protests that emerged after similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

“It was much more chaotic in Libya,” he said.

But the journey to Ukraine was far from smooth.

Kamarul and reporter Patrick Lee were on transit in Istanbul for almost 24 hours due to a flight delay. And a small airport in Ukraine, where they had landed, was bombed a day later.

From the airport, they spent about 12 hours on a non-stop train ride to Donetsk. Both of them survived on snacks they kept in their pockets as no food was sold on board.

“Thankfully, I could sleep throughout most of the journey,” Kamarul said.

Two hours before they arrived in Donetsk, the train was attacked. Gunshots were heard.

Later, all the passengers were told to get down and herded through a tunnel. No one was injured. An interpreter met with them and said: “Glad you are safe.”

The trip back to Kuala Lumpur was not any better.

Their train from Donetsk to Kiev was delayed several hours as its track was bombed.

“Then the kereta sapu that we took broke down on the way from Kiev to the airport,” Kamarul said.

It somehow restarted, and they arrived at the airport with less than an hour to check in for their flight to Istanbul.

“When we eventually touched down at KLIA, Patrick and I hugged each other,” Kamarul said.

“We made it.”

But not those 298 people.

MH17 crashed in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The rebel leadership in Donetsk has denied any responsibility for the crash. Three Russians and a Ukrainian are currently being tried in absentia in the Netherlands near Schiphol airport, which was the point of departure for MH17.

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