On a summer’s afternoon on July 17, 2014, the wreckage from a passenger flight rained down on fields near a village in Ukraine. But the crash, which killed all 298 people on board, did not happen because of a fault, or even a terrorist attack.
It had been shot down with a missile launcher during the War in Donbass conflict in Eastern Ukraine, seemingly by mistake.
Since then the families of the 283 passengers and 15 crew, who all died, have struggled to get justice for their loved ones as great lengths have been taken for evidence to be hidden amid a coordinated propaganda campaign.
Five years on, there are still questions that haven’t been answered, but it is widely accepted that the most plausible explanation is that Russia had supplied the Buk missile to pro-Russian insurgents.
Based on recordings of conversations that were intercepted by investigators, separatists are thought to have shot down the flight in error, after misidentifying it as a military aircraft.
However Russia has denied providing the Buk missile and has insisted the blame lies with Ukraine.
For the past five years, Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, has been unravelling elaborate social media campaigns and doctored evidence designed to throw the public off the truth.
From his living room in Leicester, he has tracked down the origins of the murder weapon via publicly available information, unpicked the details of released intercepted calls, and used other technology to identify over a dozen suspects believed to be responsible for the downing of the plane.
“We have so many details, and it’s incredible how many details there are but when you put the together it is ridiculously obvious what happened,” Higgins says.
From fake news, to tens of thousands of tweets sent by Russian bots, Higgins and other investigators have been up against a powerful and often bizarre Russian propaganda machine.
We take a look at what happened, what we still don’t know, and how families are still fighting for justice.
The plane – a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – had only taken off from Schiphol airport around three hours before when it disappeared off the radar screens as it passed over part of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, where conflict had been rumbling on for months.
The wreckage landed on fields near the village of Grabove, leaving the bodies of men, women and children – some still strapped into their seats – strewn across local sunflower fields. The bodies were naked as their clothes had been stripped off them by the force of the wind.
Of the 283 passengers, 196 were Dutch, 29 were Malaysian, 38 were Australian, 10 were British and the rest made up from six other nationalities. There were 15 crew, who were all Malaysian.
Who is responsible?
Dutch-led investigations into the disaster over the past five years have meticulously narrowed down the cause of the disaster, and the culprits, with the help of Bellingcat and its open-source intelligence.
Journalist Jeroen Akkemans visited the crash site and found shrapnel and missile parts. Independent analysis of one of these pieces of metal reveals part of a serial number written in Cyrillic.
Investigators have been left with no doubt that this is part of a Russian-made Buk surface to air missile system.
The missile launcher has even been tracked entering Ukrainian territory from Russia before the atrocity and returning afterwards.
Russia has always denied involvement in the incident and issued a statement last year following an interim update from investigators, saying the images presented were “fakes” that were “disavowed and rejected by Russian experts”.
Nonetheless, the shooting down of the Boeing 777 has prompted sanctions against Russia, a series of international investigations and criminal charges.
On June 19 four people were charged – Russians Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – with murder. All are linked to the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
They will be tried from March 9 next year in the Netherlands at a high-security courthouse near Schiphol Airport.
However, it is unlikely that any of the men will be present at the trial as neither Russia nor Ukraine allows its citizens to be extradited.
The fight against propaganda and fake news
Eliot Higgins and the investigators of the crash have been up against a coordinated propaganda machine that kicked into gear almost immediately.
Dutch researchers have recently discovered that troll factories sent out 65,000 tweets in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
The Russian defence ministry held a press conference just days after the crash to deny any knowledge of it.
“It really shows immediately afterwards that there was an attempt to alter the narrative around what really happened with MH17 and this was even before they had the Russian press conference,” Higgins said.
Higgins noticed something that has become a regular occurrence – the Russian ministry of defence making claims that are later uncovered to have come from a blog on the internet, as opposed to because of hard evidence.
“This is a pattern of behaviour I have noticed on other cases involving the Russian ministry of defence or the Russian government. Rather than having their own theories, they just use stuff from blogs but don’t mention they got it from a blog.
“You don’t notice it if you aren’t really engaged with a particular topic but I’ve noticed it with MH17 and I’ve also seen it with chemical weapons,” he said.
The coordinated attack included images that had been photoshopped.
“They used old satellite images and claimed it was from July and photoshopped some missile launchers out of it and in others had photoshopped missile launchers into it. They wanted to make the case that Ukraine was moving missile launchers about but we could prove that these images had been faked.
“The most horrifying thing is that 298 people had just died and two days later they are publishing all these fakes and lying to the world about it, which I think tells you everything you need to know about Russia’s involvement in it.”
What are the missing pieces of the investigation?
Five years on, the Bellingcat team are still determined to uncover the full truth about the disaster. They have five key questions which remain unanswered. They are:
- Who was in the cabin of the Buk when it was fired at the plane? We know they were Russian servicemen, but which ones?
- How exactly was the decision made to fire the Buk at a plane that was so high and moving so fast? Was it a rushed decision made under duress, or inexperience?
- How high up did this go in the Russian military for the transfer/use of a Buk in Ukraine? As high as the report into Sergei Shoigu (Minister of Defence) himself? Whoever they are, they would be liable in war crime proceedings.
- What information can the recently arrested Vladimir Tsemakh (Ukrainian citizen and eyewitness) give up – the identities of the Buk convoy crew members perhaps - in the investigation and court case in the Netherlands?
- Obvious but important – where is Buk 332, which downed MH17? Is it sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Russia, was it destroyed or taken apart, or was it just repainted and renovated to look like every other Buk TELAR?
The fight for justice
The families of the victims have been fighting for justice for the last five years. Some have focused their efforts on Russia’s involvement, others are angry that Malaysian Airlines chose to fly over the war-torn Ukraine in the middle of a conflict.
Higgins is regularly in contact with families of the victims and is this week speaking at an event where all the family members are gathering together in Amsterdam, and says they are realistic about what justice they will be able to get.
He says: “When I have spoken to them, they do seem to realise that these people who pressed the button are just part of this whole chain of command.
“Some of them even have sympathy for those involved at that level because they have been sent to a war in a foreign country and told to do something, and they have followed the order.
“I don’t think there is a sense they deliberately targeted it because it was airliner. It was an accident and had terrible consequences, but I don’t necessarily think they blame the people who pressed the button but they do blame the people who had the policy of having a war in Eastern Ukraine and sending military equipment over and who set up the circumstances around that.
“It varies from person to person but that’s the most general sense I get,” he adds.
To coincide with the anniversary of the mass murder, the first series of the brand new Bellingcat Podcast focuses on MH17 and gives the inside story into the investigation.