Andrew E. Written by Kramer and Mark Santora
Hundreds of graves were cut out in the sandy soil of a pine forest, isolated and untested. A cold wind blew from the branches of the tree. The police officers spoke in a calm voice. And the newly excavated bodies were lying on the forest floor.
Just a week after the Russian army fled to the northeast Ukraine In a frantic return, and days after President Volodymyr Zelensky hoisted the flag on the newly reclaimed city of Izium, Ukrainian investigators on Friday began a painstaking task: documenting the toll on the city six months under Russian occupation.
They have already found several burial sites. Ukrainian officials said the pine forest, the largest of them, could hold the remains of more than 400 people who died during the nearly six-month Russian occupation.
The identities and causes of death of many of the people buried at that site are not known. Nor is it clear how many were civilians and how many were soldiers. But the scale of the grave underscores the depth of the damage Ukraine has suffered since Russia invaded, an estimated tens of thousands of people across the country. And it missed widespread evidence of atrocities by Russian troops in cities such as Buka, near the capital of Kyiv, investigators said.
In Izium, like dozens of other towns, villages and cities in Ukraine’s northern counter-offensive, residents lived and died for months under the authority of Russian troops. Should Ukraine’s military be able to reclaim more places where the Russians were forced to retreat in haste, more such graves are expected.
Local officials estimate that more than 1,000 people died in Izium during the occupation, many of them from a lack of medicine and medical care. The city had a population of about 40,000, although only 10,000 inhabitants were estimated during the fighting.
Officials said the large burial site in Izium included about 445 individual graves and a mass grave where soldiers were buried. According to residents, a Russian air raid leveled an apartment building in March, killing some. “Here are my neighbors and friends,” said Serhi Shtanko, 33.
Individual graves were next to an old cemetery, but not on its grounds. Most of them had crosses on rough boards with only a number written on them. The mass grave was marked with a cross with “Soldiers of the Seventeen Ukrainian Army”.
Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner Dmitro Lubinets said he was “piled up in a herd and buried.”
Some individual graves had names and birth and death dates. Flowers were laid near the burial places of some of those whose identities were fixed.
Ukrainian officials said the bodies already exhumed on Friday included family members – a mother, father, daughter and two grandparents – killed in Russian bombings in the spring.
The principal investigator of the Kharkiv regional police force, Sergei Bolvinov, said the others had recently been killed and had strangulation marks.
Russian forces took control of Izium in late March, turning the major railway hub into a military stronghold and ground for its attack on eastern Ukraine. They fled last weekend as Ukrainian forces drove Russians to the northeast and reclaimed thousands of square miles.
Officials invited journalists to watch the excavation process on Friday to draw attention to what they claimed was evidence of more atrocities by Russian troops. “The whole world should see this place,” said Lubinets. “To us, it shows that the Russians committed a crime, and not just a crime, but a genocide of the Ukrainian population. In this place we see women and children.”
Raisa Derevinko, 65, who lived across the street from the grave, said the Russians would bring the dead into the woods almost every night.
“We haven’t seen who they are burying,” she said. After the Russian army was driven out by the Ukrainian army, she went into the woods and found a mass grave. “There was a stink from a giant hole,” she said.
Many Russian military units and a disorganized mix of mercenaries and military police units roamed the towns and villages during the occupation. Some were more brutal than others, said Ihor Levchenko, a resident of Balaklia, a town northwest of Izium.
The bodies lay on the streets in the first days after the Russian invasion but were soon cleared. “I only saw bodies in the beginning,” he said.
The head of the national police, Ihor Klymenko, said law enforcement agencies last week opened 204 criminal proceedings related to war crimes they say were committed by the Russian military. Speaking at a news conference on Friday, he said investigators were investigating 10 locations in the Kharkiv region where Russians are suspected of torturing Ukrainians.
The investigation goes back to the spring days after Russian troops withdrew from the area around Kyiv, when journalists and human rights groups uncovered significant evidence of torture by Russian forces, including witness testimony, satellite imagery and photos and videos. The Kremlin denies that its troops have committed brutal acts against civilians.
In the northeastern Kharkiv region, Ukrainians fear Russian troops will have months to cover any offense. The expansion of the territory alone poses a significant challenge to Ukrainian prosecutors, who are trying to treat hundreds of villages and towns spread over thousands of square miles as crime scenes.
Moreover, the task of identifying the dead is arduous, time-consuming and grueling. In Bucha, forensic experts have been working since the spring, but have yet to identify all those killed.
Investigators in Iseum wore blue hospital gowns, latex gloves and face masks against Reek over their uniforms. The soldiers assisting him dug with shovels until they reached a body, then carried away the sand around the edges.
Two or three soldiers and the police would climb into the grave to get the bodies out of the filth.
At one point, he threw a dead corpse dressed in a winter jacket and pants onto the surface.
A police investigator untied the jacket and searched the pocket for items possibly useful in identifying the victim, found eye drops, a crumpled piece of paper, and a cigarette lighter.
“The whole world should see this,” Zelensky wrote in a Telegram post on Friday with images of investigators working at the site. He said among the bodies were children, bodies with marks of torture, victims of missile attacks and Ukrainian soldiers.
“Russia leaves only death and suffering,” said Zelensky. “Assassins. Tyrants. Human deprived of everything. You will not run. You will not hide. The vengeance will be justifiably terrible.”
An Izium resident named Pavlo, who for fear of reprisal asked to be identified only by his first name, said that many people died during the early Russian siege, which destroyed many buildings.
He and other volunteers searched the wreckage, he said in a phone interview, finding hundreds of bodies day after day.
“We were putting them in the car, going to the bank of the river, walking on a self-built wooden bridge with a stretcher and then headed to the cemetery,” Pavlo said.