By Eric van de Beek
Malaysian flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile delivered from Russia and fired from territory controlled by rebels in eastern Ukraine. This narrative was propagated from day one by the Ukrainian secret service SBU. Most people take it for a fact now. But the MH17 trial has just started and the court is still far from reaching a verdict.
In part I of this article series we saw that the Ukrainian secret service SBU promoted a photo of a smoke plume, identified by them as the condensation trail of a Buk launch. Simultaneously the Ukrainian authorities directed journalists and bloggers to the location where the photo had been shot. Subsequently the anonymous blogger DJP3tros geolocated the smoke plume at a piece of farmland near the village of Pervomaiskyi, south of the city of Snizhne. That's how the first journalists arrived at what was to become the crime scene designated by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service and the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). These journalists were Daily Telegraph reporter Roland Oliphant and Mashable’s Christopher Miller.
At the court session of June 9 prosecutor Thijs Berger referred to the findings of Oliphant and Miller. "One journalist shot a video on 22 July 2014 of a particular location near Pervomaiskyi," Berger said. "In the video he described finding scorched grass at that spot on that day. According to the journalist it was scorched in an odd way."
The scorched grass was caused by the launch of a Buk missile, the prosecution thinks. "The investigation into the workings of the Buk system revealed that during the launch of a Buk missile, combustion gases are released at a very high temperature as a jet of flame," as Berger put it. "According to Almaz Antey, the company that manufactures the Buk, this combustion can cause a fire at the launch site."
Berger then suggested that satellite images had confirmed the findings of Oliphant and Miller. "In the satellite images from 20 and 21 July, there is a visible path of discoloration in the upper left corner of the agricultural field. This discoloration is consistent with scorched earth. There is no such discoloration in the satellite image from 16 July 2014."
The satellite images from July 21 and 22 indeed show discoloration, and Miller had indeed filmed and taken photos in this discolored field. But he had done so on the west side of the discolored part of the field, as he pointed out on Twitter, when people asked him about it. This is not where the prosecution thinks the missile was launched and the fire had started.
According to them this happened on the east side of the discolored part of the field. "The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute KNMI assessed how a fire at this location may have progressed using information about the wind speed and wind direction on 17 July 2014," Berger explained. "On the basis of this analysis the KNMI designated a specific location as the logical starting point of the fire. In the report this location is designated with the letter B." Berger then showed a picture of location B .
Miller had not taken photos at KNMI's location B. Why not? Because "the hottest spot was where we photographed", as Miller put it. He and Oliphant had driven past KNMI's location B, near a lone standing tree in the field, but they had noticed nothing that could compare to what they had seen in the west corner of the field or that looked different from the rest.
Still the prosecution takes it for a fact the fire started near the isolated tree. Why? How did KNMI convince the prosecution they had found the exact location? On the basis of the fact that the wind came from the east on July 17 in that area? Had KNMI therefore figured the fire must have started at the east side of the field? Prosecutor Berger did not explain. And it's strange. On satellite images from July 20 and later on it clearly can be seen the spot were Miller made his photo of scorched grass or wheat stands out in terms of discoloration. This part looks much darker than other parts in the field. If the discoloration of the field was caused by just one fire (it could have been two), one would say it must have started on the west side and not at KNMI's location B on the east side of the field.
Track marks on satellite photo
To further substantiate its claim the fatal Buk was launched near the lone standing tree at KNMI's location B, the prosecution showed a satellite image from July 20, 2014, on which tracks marks can be seen close to the tree. An image analyst at the Ministry of Defense had investigated the nature, width and route of the track marks, Berger explained. "On that basis it was possible to determine whether they came from an agricultural vehicle or a vehicle with a caterpillar tread, such as a Buk TELAR."
Berger didn't reveal anything about the outcome of the investigation of the defense analyst into the track marks. Did the analyst conclude they must have come from a vehicle with a caterpillar tread? Yes or no? It remained unclear.
Berger suggested the suspicious track marks weren't there before July 17 by saying they weren't visible on a satellite photo taken on July 16. Indeed, on the satellite photo of July 16 no track marks can be seen. But does this prove they weren't there before July 17? Could it be they were already there but invisible to satellites because the wheat had covered the track marks until the field was burnt on July 17?
Track marks on this location are visible on many pictures, before and after July 17, 2014. In fact, right next to the lone tree, west of it, there's a passage that enables the farmers to drive from the fields on the north side to those on the south side and vice versa. In other words: it's a cross roads for agricultural vehicles, and so it's no surprise to find track marks at that very location. Moreover, according to citizen journalist Stefan Beck, who visited the area, there was a pothole in the road, near the solitary tree in the field, which made cars and other vehicles go off road, into the farmland and drive around the tree. Hence the arch formed tracks around the trees.
Not only didn't Berger reveal anything about the outcome of the investigation of the defence analyst into the track marks. He furthermore conveniently forgot to mention that burnt fields can be found everywhere in the neighborhood, since it is standard farming practice to burn fields. Also, not mentioned by him: there had been heavy fighting going on in the area with shells and other projectiles setting fields on fire, killing civilians and destroying residential buildings.
On satellite images in the years before and after 2014 many discolorations can been seen on farmland in the area, but with the heavy fighting that was going on in 2014 there was more scorched farmland than ever before.
Cause of the fire: unknown
Was the wheat field at the alleged launch location put on fire by farmers? By someone who forgot to put out his cigarette? A campfire? By artillery? Or by a Buk launch after all? When Oliphant and Miller arrived in the area, on July 22, 2014, they asked the driver of a combine harvester, but he said he didn't know. Two Dutch journalists, Gert-Jan Dennekamp of Dutch state affiliated broadcaster NOS and Bert Lanting of daily newspaper de Volkskrant, visited the area in 2015. They declared to have spoken to four farmers who were passing by. "They confirmed the field was on fire on July 17th," Dennekamp reported. "At the end of the day they were summoned by their supervisor to plough the field in order to prevent the whole field from catching fire. They say they don't know how the fire started." Dennekamp subsequently suggested the farmers lied. "They didn't want to tell me," he said.
The field indeed seems ploughed. On the satellite images the edges of the discolored part of the field look much darker than the rest. These must be plough furrows.
The agricultural field belongs to a former kolchoz, a collective farm. Dutch citizen journalist Stefan Beck visited the farm in 2018. He talked to farmers and administrators. None of them was able to tell him how the fire had started, but they talked about it as of it was just another fire. "Fifty percent of our fields has been on fire," one of he ladies of the administration remarked in passing. The thing they remembered most was the heavy fighting around July 17th. "We tried not to look," one of the women said. "We took shelter. When there where bombardments one could hear the window glass shaking." The women of the administration showed Beck the roof of one of the shacks of the farmhouse, which had been destroyed, they said, by artillery shelling. On July 28 the personnel of the farm was evacuated.
'Unexamined' soil samples
At the court session of June 8, Berger revealed that samples from the alleged launch location had been collected June 19, 2015, but that these had not been examined because it was expected no residue of combustion would be found eleven months after the launch of the Buk missile.
Then why had these samples been collected in the first place?
Berger argued that at first it was thought something might be found in the samples. But then on second thought the samples were considered worthless.
And so why had the experts changed their minds?
Before the experts had started examining the samples from the alleged launch location, Ukraine had sent reference material to The Netherlands for research, Berger explained. This reference material was collected from a military base where Ukraine had launched a Buk missile five months before. When the experts from The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) studied this material they found no residue of combustion. Since the soil samples from the alleged launch location had been collected at a much later point in time than the Ukrainian reference material, the NFI decided it was no use to examine the soil samples from the alleged launch location. They reasoned: If all traces of a Buk launch were lost five months after the event, as had been demonstrated from the Ukrainian reference material, then surely no traces would be found in the soil samples from the alleged launch location that had been collected eleven months after the launch.
On June 22 the lawyers of Oleg Pulatov criticized the JIT and the prosecution for their decision to leave the soil samples unexamined. No sound conclusions could be drawn from just one set of reference material, they argued, especially since it appeared from the case file the reference material had been collected by the SBU without any JIT personnel present.
Had the lawyers read the report from the April 15, 2016 JIT meeting they probably would have been more outspoken in their critique. From this document, that was published by Bonanza Media, it shows that Berger didn't tell the truth when he said the soil samples of the alleged launch location had not been examined. At the time of the JIT meeting, in April 2015, the NFI was in the process of "comparing soil samples that were collected from the most probable launch site", the report reads. During the JIT meeting it then was decided to cancel this investigation. "We are of the opinion that this work should stop as it is not required to prove the location of the launch site," the Dutch representative in JIT declared. This position was adopted by the representatives from the other JIT-countries, without discussion. Probably they thought they could do without soil samples to prove their case. Or maybe they thought the soil samples would prove them wrong on the location they had designated as the crime scene?
This is the second part of a three part series about the location from where MH17 was shot. In part three we will take a close look at the calculations of the launch area that were based on the damage pattern of the plane, the geolocalization of the smoke plume and the alternative launch locations that were investigated by the prosecution.