When Flyover Country is a War Zone
From the Series: Ecologies of War
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot out of the sky over war-torn eastern Ukraine. The plane was downed by a Russian-manufactured Buk missile launched by separatists who mistook the commercial aircraft for Ukrainian military aviation. All 298 passengers and crew members were killed, and debris—human and mechanical—rained down over 34 kilometers of villages and agricultural lands. The tragedy could have been avoided: three days prior, separatists had deployed another surface-to-air missile against a Ukrainian military cargo plane, killing forty-nine people. Ukraine closed its air space from ground to 32,000 feet, but commercial jets, which often fly higher, continued to cruise over the Donbas region. MH17 was at 33,000 feet when its passengers became victims of a war to which they had no relation.
What happens when flyover country is a war zone? Or when a war zone is flyover country? For nearly a century, airspace has been a critical part of battlefields. The vast majority of the time, commercial passengers float blissfully above or around the fighting. The MH17 disaster is one of a handful of incidents in which an airliner has been caught up in crossfire—eerily, in January of 2020, it was a Ukrainian plane that was shot down, its 176 passengers and crew casualties of a simmering conflict between Iran and the United States. But it is not only the jet set who remain aloft and aloof. Most of us only view war zones from great distances. Further, whether in media or in military actions, war zones are constantly depicted like flyover country: patchwork quilts of fields and forests; dots and lines on maps; spaces that are empty, or at least empty of people like ourselves.
In the seconds after MH17 was struck, the plane was torn apart, and everything that had been in it was outside and crashing to earth. Witnesses found bodies, and body parts, in their streets, their gardens, their living rooms. But news coverage of the MH17 disaster, both in Ukraine and especially abroad, often featured images of sunflowers: recovery workers combing sunflower fields for remains; scraps of the plane and personal belongings watched over mournfully by human-sized blossoms with golden manes and giant eyes; masses of floral bouquets at the Amsterdam airport and outside embassies. The predominance of the sunflower motif in media, and later, memorials, became so extensive that one could be forgiven for thinking the whole plane had crashed into a sea of golden blossoms.
It was the cockpit and nose of the plane that landed in sunflower fields near the village of Rozsypne. Among the first reporters at the scene were Australian war correspondents Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty. Feeling compelled to provide a “keepsake” for the families and friends of the victims, they collected seeds from the surrounding sunflowers, which were at their festive summer peak. But these were industrial sunflowers—Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflower oil—and while the blossoms were in full bloom, their fruit was far from ripe. Sunflower is harvested in autumn, once the plant’s head has dried and its seeds are fat and ready to press. The resultant oil greases the pans of home cooks, sizzles potatoes in industrial fryers, and is sprayed on breakfast cereals to keep cornflakes crunchy.
The journalists did not know this, and in the absence of time or tools, “[wrung] the bread-plate sized flowers from the stringy stems,” packed them into a suitcase, and later scraped the seeds into hotel laundry bags. There the seeds remained until Christmas, when McGeough announced his intention to distribute them, only to be confronted by Australia’s quarantine regime. Eventually, laboratory-produced seeds, the certified disease-free descendants of the MH17 sunflowers, would be gifted to families and integrated into memorials in Australia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Among the tributes is a garden in Hilversum, a Dutch town that lost fifteen people from five families. At the memorial’s dedication, Hilversum’s mayor observed, “The sunflowers bring us back to the crash site, which was full of sunflowers. . . . They console us a bit, and give us seeds for the future.”
But where exactly do the MH17 sunflowers point to? Perhaps it is easier to say to whom the sunflowers point: with their tall stems and prominent heads, the sunflowers subtly evoke those lost, perhaps permitting them a way to live on. McGeough described sunflowers as “happy chaps” that might cheer the mourners, just as he found the sunflower fields a soothing “cloak” over the “horror” of the flight wreckage.
The MH17 sunflowers offer us a story of misrecognition that transformed a commodity into a gift and a desperately needed means of grieving. Yet in both the coverage of MH17 and its memorialization, the warzone and the people who inhabit it are reduced to the collage of fields one might spy from a plane. The sunflower field—the battlefield in this case—is abstracted of the humans who planted it and whose lives are intertwined with it. Ukraine remains flyover country, just as it was for MH17.
Instead of asking what happens when flyover country is a war zone, we might ask, How do wars presuppose flyover country? It is not only airplane passengers and international media who take a bird’s-eye view. Warfare itself presumes the existence of “empty” (Dzenovska and Knight 2020) spaces where battles can be fought. Consequently, rural communities frequently bear the brunt of military action. In Ukraine, village schools have been commandeered for military bases; fields and forests land-mined; essential infrastructure damaged and never repaired; homes shelled with little regard for who might be inside (Bulakh 2018; DeAngelo and Jones 2019).
After seven years of war, eastern Ukraine is scarred from battles in the trenches, sea, and sky. But from overhead and far away, the land must look largely the same as it did in 2014: patchwork fields; points on a map; a nowhere that became a somewhere for a short while, and then a nowhere once more.
Bulakh, Tetiana. 2018. “Living Between Two Fires in Eastern Ukraine: Sovereignty Gaps in Conflict-Affected Areas.” Journal of Extreme Anthropology 2(2): 118–33.
DeAngelo, Darcie, and Deborah A. Jones. 2019. “Explosive Landscapes.” Anthropology News website, November 15, 2019.
Dzenovska, Dace, and Daniel M. Knight. 2020. “Emptiness.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, December 15, 2020.