“People have disappeared”: the inhabitants of Izium on the Russian occupation | Ukraine

The horror slowly unfolds from the burning rubble of Izium, one of the most vital towns for the Russians before its recapture last weekend by Ukrainian forces.

Tank wrecks with the Z symbol of Moscow are dotted along the cratered streets. Dozens of bombed-out apartment buildings in the city center lie abandoned along roads covered in debris from what was one of the fiercest battles of this war, leaving at least 1,000 people dead , according to Ukrainian officials. The city, dubbed the second Mariupol due to the heavy shelling it suffered, was visited by the outside world for the first time after its reconquest on Wednesday.

“It’s impossible to explain what we went through if you didn’t go through it,” says Olga, 44. “We lay on the ground and stayed inside our house, so long that we learned to recognize bombs. If the Russian plane we heard from outside was not so loud, then we knew it was going to drop two bombs. If, on the contrary, the plane was very loud, it would drop six. We counted each explosion before we could breathe a sigh of relief.

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Outside the city administration building, which was still hot from being shelled, were cool shell casings. Bodies battered by shelling have reportedly begun to be retrieved from the rubble, some apparently buried alive.

Considered for centuries the gateway to the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and from there to the Black Sea, Izium today is a giant crime scene where Ukrainian prosecutors move quickly to gather evidence on war crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Russians in the cities. released by Kyiv.

“After the counter-offensive, we found some burial places of local residents [across the Kharkiv region] who were murdered by the Russian army,” says Oleksandr Filchakov, chief prosecutor of the Kharkiv region. “Some of them were even tortured. As for Izium, well, we just started…”

Buildings bombed in Izium. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

According to testimonies from residents and some police officers, at least 50 people died when Russia dropped a series of heavy bombs on a residential building near the main bridge. The apartment building has been split in two, with pieces removed from the edge, by what resembles the bombs used when the Russians attempted to capture Borodianka in the Kyiv region – a Soviet-era Fab-250 bomb designed to hitting military targets such as enemy fortifications and bunkers.

There were, however, no such structures in this quiet town which, before the war, had a population of 46,000. Today, only a few thousand remain. Locals say the only way out was Russia and many refused to go.

On April 1, Izium fell to Russian forces and Moscow made it the main launching point for the Russian assault on remaining Ukrainian troops in Ukrainian-held Donbass. The local authorities managed to evacuate part of the population but according to the authorities, around 10,000 citizens remained trapped.

A family cooking outside the basement of their home in Izium.
A family cooking outside the basement of their home in Izium. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

“After the Russians came, the shelling was still constant: they placed their tanks around the center and there was incoming fire,” said Vitaliy Ivanovych, a 64-year-old former radio electronics engineer, who had the looked worn and was dressed in dusty brown clothes. “They wouldn’t let you go, only if you wanted to go to Russia.”

Ivanovych said cellphone signals and electricity were cut off during the attack in early March. He said power was restored a month ago, but not to all parts of the city, meaning some people lived without power for the entire period.

As most of the townspeople depend on electric pumps for their water supply, the lack of electricity also meant that there was no water. Residents had rarely been able to wash themselves or their clothes.

Citizens of Izium during a food distribution by the International Red Cross.
Citizens of Izium during a food distribution by the International Red Cross. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

But because of his background in radio, unlike many locals, Ivanovych had access to outside information. “I had a radio that I charged using a solar battery to pick up Ukrainian stations.”

Residents interviewed by the Guardian were extremely happy that the Ukrainian army had retaken the town from the Russians. They expressed their hatred towards the occupying forces and were visibly traumatized by their experience.

A woman posing with her friends with small Ukrainian flags outside the bombed-out administration building said the Russians had come to ask for their passport numbers and told them they would soon receive Russian passports.

“I just said ‘no’…and they just left,” the woman said. “They said it was the Ukrainian army that had bombed us but we didn’t believe it, we knew where it came from.”

Those we spoke to said the Russian soldiers mostly kept to themselves, they said they had no direct knowledge of Russians beating or torturing civilians. Law enforcement officials were in the city on Wednesday to begin their war crimes investigation. At least one case of torture was reported in the vicinity of Balakliia.

However, locals the Guardian spoke to confirmed that when the Russians arrived in their town, they already had lists of those locals who were in the military, military families or war veterans. Donbass, which started in 2014.

“They knew exactly where to look, at what address,” the woman said.

According to their testimonies, the Russians kidnapped these men and took them to unknown places. Their fate, to this day, remains a mystery.

“They disappeared,” says Eduard, 30. “A friend of mine rebelled against the Russian soldiers who stole his car. They killed him in cold blood, along with his dog.

Natasha, a middle-aged store clerk whose store was bombed, said: “Everything that was bombed was done by the Russians…it happened in the first weeks of the war.”

Svitlana, a woman in her 40s who cooked food on a stove outside her home, said she and her neighbors had been gas-free since February. Svitlana said she couldn’t say she was happy to see the Ukrainian army.

“We don’t know who was shooting at us,” said Svitlana, who said she hadn’t had access to the internet or news since the war began. “We will be happy once we have electricity and water. What will happen in winter, none of us have a window… we are also afraid that the bombardments will resume.

Residents hope normal life will return soon and that the battle that forced them into hiding for months, killing their friends and destroying their homes is truly over, even as explosions echo through the streets from the line of southeast front, just eight kilometers (five miles) one way.

Today the Russians retreated to the east bank of the Oskil River, about 10 miles from Izium, whose recapture by Kyiv marked one of the most strategic breakthroughs for Ukraine since the start of the war. war.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise visit in Izium, and said he was “very shocked” but not surprised by the extent of the damage caused to the city. He thanked the paratroopers who participated in the liberation of Izium and saw the Ukrainian flag hoisted in front of his gutted administrative building.

Days before the Ukrainians arrived, Natasha said the Russians had ordered a 10-day lockdown. Then on Saturday morning at 2 a.m. they heard trucks leaving. “They didn’t let us go anywhere, they cut off the electricity, there was no water,” Natasha said.

“The next day [Saturday morning]I looked outside and could see that they were no longer standing at our checkpoint.

“We walked out, they weren’t there,” she added. “Later, our guys arrived.”

Additional reporting by Artem Mazhulin.

Michael A. Bynum