Former Grafton man describes Ukraine's reaction to MH17

A piece of wreckage from Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in a field in Ukraine.
A piece of wreckage from Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in a field in Ukraine. AAP

AT THE time of this telephone interview, Grafton born and bred mission worker Andrew Ford, who now calls Ukraine home, was on his way to the airport to put his Clarence Valley parents, Dennis and Linda, on a plane back to Australia after spending the month with him.

This goes some way to illustrate that the everyday activities we take we granted here are still occurring in Ukraine despite the country's volatile backdrop, one which was recently catapulted into our frontal lobes when a Malaysian Airlines plane carrying 298 civilians, including 37 Australians, was shot down as they approached the country's eastern border, killing everyone on board.

It's been reported a buk missile was used in the attack and that the weapon was likely to have been handed to the pro-Russian separatists occupying east Ukraine by Moscow, but it is early days in the investigation and, from a local perspective, this "crime" (as our government described it) is just one of the many that have occurred on Ukraine soil over the past months.

Innocent people have been dying for months and months and months here and nobody cares. Now people from other countries have been killed, everyone cares.

"The general feeling in the country hasn't changed a whole lot since the plane accident," Andrew said frankly.

"There's already been so many local people killed. If there was a change in feeling I guess it would be that the rest of the world might now pay attention and send help.

"At the same time most people here also understand that there probably isn't going to be any practical assistance coming anytime soon. It's more of a vague hope that people have here."

A women cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine.
A women cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine. Vadim Ghirda

The 39-year-old is feeling much like his fellow Ukrainians when it comes to finding a solution to the conflict on the Russian border.

"If Ukraine wants this to end, they are going to have to do something about it themselves. Nobody else is going to want to get involved in a war with Russia.

"I can understand that. I wish it was different. I wish somebody would send more help but it's not going to happen.

"Other countries talk tough and apply sanctions but nobody's going to want to get involved directly.

"Maybe if it got really serious, somebody might send in some weapons but you'll never see soldiers on the ground from another country here. There's just been a lot of talk but people here just realise it's talk."

But amid the sense of helplessness the Ukrainians feel generally, Andrew said their compassion has been "very impressive" towards the victims of MH17 and their families - particularly given their own plight.

"The general public have been really sympathetic towards the other countries that have lost their families and loved ones," he said.

"Although they are absolute strangers to them and have their own pain, they were still able to publicly express a lot of sorrow for what had happened."

Andrew lives "a long way from any fighting - about 700-800km" in the centre west of the country in Vinnyisa - a city directly north of Moldova - and although he is not being personally impacted by the situation in the east, it touches everybody over there in some form.

"We haven't had any need to go over there but we know people from that part of the country," he said.

"One of our good friends is from there and she's now living in Kiev and her parents have just moved there from one of the occupied cities. Her auntie and one of her cousins have been killed. They weren't involved in any fighting; they just got caught up in the crossfire.

"I don't worry about it day-to-day with regards to myself and my family because we live in a safe city (Andrew and his wife Oxana are expecting their first baby in September and have two adopted children). Even in the worst-case scenario, our side of the country would never end up as a part of Russia.

"But we do worry about it from our country's point of view and our friends. Very few people here want to see Ukraine divided and split up. They all want peace and most people don't understand why it had to begin."

Andrew said most the country want to stay with the European Union and, despite what you might see on the news, the parts of the country that are pro-Russian are really very small by comparison.

A toy bear is placed on charred plane fuselage parts, as people walk through the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine.
A toy bear is placed on charred plane fuselage parts, as people walk through the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine. Vadim Ghirda

"They broadcast maps showing parts of the country that would like to break away, showing two eastern provinces but, if you actually break it down, it's probably only a third of the population in those two provinces that want to do that.

"They would never be able to do it on their own if they weren't aided by Russia. There hasn't been any interest in that part of the country for as long as I've been in Ukraine (17 years). It's been a totally manufactured event. Really ridiculous."

Andrew said there were resources in that part of the country - mining coal and steel, smelting, and minerals but, apart from that, he is perplexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin's interest in the area.

"It's the head of the industrialised part of the country but I don't know why he would really want it," he said.

"It's a very poor part of the country which relies heavily on the federal government to support it economically to make it viable.

"I have no idea why Putin would want a part of the country that requires a lot of financial aid to keep it going.

"I think the guy's just living in a bygone era and, in his head, he just loves the Soviet Union and wants to restore its glory. He's just not living in the modern world."

But Andrew agrees the Russian president still has a lot of supporters in his homeland.

"It's too bad somebody can't create some sort of movement within Russia to bring about change there," he said. "He has so much propaganda going on inside his country that the people there just believe the lies because there's so much of it."

In this annotated photo, dated Sunday, July 20, 2014, provided by Airbus DS/AllSource Analysis, a satellite image shows the primary crash site, at top right, of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 located near Hrabove, eastern Ukraine.
In this annotated photo, dated Sunday, July 20, 2014, provided by Airbus DS/AllSource Analysis, a satellite image shows the primary crash site, at top right, of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 located near Hrabove, eastern Ukraine. Airbus Dsallsource Analysis

In the meantime, Andrew is resigned that the conflict will go on.

"It is a full-on war," he said. "I know in the media they are not calling it one but it's plain and simple war. People are being killed every day. People are being forcibly removed and injured every day.

"There's looting that is going on by rebel soldiers. They really are like mafia guys gone out of control. There is no law controlling them. They do what they like."

That includes some horrendous stories Andrew has learnt by living in the country and is understandably upset and frustrated by them.

"You probably haven't heard a lot about the torture going on in the east but people they have captured that are against them - a lot just disappear," he said.

"Kidnapping has become fairly common and some of the towns and villages have found mass graves.

"It's horrible. Bodies have been found showing signs of being cut and burnt alive.

"Earlier in the conflict a couple of politicians were found dead with their stomachs cut open. The guys that are in control out there are animals."

And while frank talk like this is confronting, Andrew believes sometime the "horrible side of what's going on out there should be spoken about and put in the public eye".

"People need to know how ugly and how horrible it really is," he said. 

"It can look very clean when you are reading about it on the internet or watching on television. The plane crash was a very bad reminder that it is all too real."

And while far away in Australia it can seem like reason enough to switch-off when it comes to the atrocities being endured on the other side of the world, Andrew speaks unreservedly as a resident of one of the world's war-affected nations when he tries to explain the frustrations of living in a place that is exposed to violence on a daily basis.

"I guess I would hope people don't just wait until an event affects them personally before they start to care about somebody else's problem," he said.

"Be aware of what's going on in the world and care about what's going on, even if it doesn't directly affect you.

"My wife is Ukrainian and said it was very sad that people from other countries died in the plane crash but innocent people have been dying for months and months and months here and nobody cares. Now people from other countries have been killed, everyone cares."

Despite the horror and helplessness the country is feeling now, Andrew does still hold out some hope for its future.

"The Ukraine will be put back together the way it was," he said.

"It's just going to take some time. I even think in the future Crimea (a southern peninsular) in the east, will eventually come back as part of the country like it was before the fighting. But it's going to take time and it's going to be bloody.

"Even once it's back together, it's going to take a long time for the place to heal and get back to some sort of normality."

Pro-Russian rebels, with guns, pass plane wreckage.
Pro-Russian rebels, with guns, pass plane wreckage. Vadim Ghirda

How the war began

It all started back in last November when Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovich, made a decision to ally Ukraine more closely with Russia than with the European Union by abandoning a partnership deal with the EU.

That decision sparked massive protests, mostly by young Ukrainians who want their country to become more independent from Russia. (When Russia was the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics, or USSR, Ukraine was one of those republics.) The protests are known as Euromaidan.

The protests became violent and 88 protestors died, many of them at the hands of uniformed government snipers. The parliament voted Yanukovich out and he fled the country.

Russia doesn't want to let go of Ukraine. (The eastern part of Ukraine is heavily influenced by Russia and even speaks Russian, while the western part leans to the west.) So it started to send in forces.

The US and other countries like Australia think that's not right. US president Barack Obama warned Russian president Vladimir Putin not to go forward. But he ignored the warning and authorised the use of force in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, western nations are calling on Russia to pull back its forces in Crimea (a peninsula of Ukraine) or face "significant costs".

So far nothing much has been done by the west in response to Russia's actions except applying sanctions, and in the meantime innumerable people have been killed, including the 298 victims on flight MH17.

Andrew's work

Andrew founded the group Key of Hope and with his wife, Oxana, is part of the Youth With a Mission movement. The couple work full time among the underprivileged children in Ukraine orphanages.

Andrew said it was summer holidays over there now so it is quiet.

"The kids get sent off to different camps but come September, when they are back in school, we will be back into our regular orphanage visits," he said. "In general it's going really well. We have good relationships with two orphanages that are open to us coming and doing our various activities with the kids."

But right now, especially with all the stuff going on, the orphanages are really short of money. The government has cut back the budget so they are especially appreciative of anyone who comes in with any help at the moment. If you would like to help or find out more, visit their Facebook page (search "Key of Hope Ukraine" within Facebook).

Topics:  editors picks mh17 ukraine

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