Russian retreat from Izyum reveals mass graves and horrors of occupation

Army and police investigators begin the exhumation of a mass grave in Izyum, Ukraine.
Army and police investigators begin the exhumation of a mass grave in Izyum, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)

IZYUM, Ukraine – Russian forces have terrorized residents throughout their six-month occupation of Izyum, a strategic hub in northeastern Ukraine, with witnesses and victims this week recounting the torture, killings and enforced disappearances perpetrated by soldiers. And while they testified, Ukrainian officials who had regained control of the city were working to uncover evidence of these potential war crimes.

Investigators began Friday to exhume the bodies of more than 400 civilians buried in a makeshift cemetery and up to 17 Ukrainian soldiers buried in a mass grave at the same site. The area, located in a forest just outside of Izyum, had been used as a Russian military position.

Officials said they quickly identified signs of torture on some of the corpses. At least one had a rope around its neck, they said.

“Bucha, Mariupol, now, unfortunately, Izyum,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday, citing other places where Russian occupying forces have inflicted widespread violence on civilians. “Russia leaves death everywhere.”

About 100 investigators stoically dug up the graves – each marked with a simple wooden cross and a number – and took notes on the condition of the decomposing bodies, measuring them and looking for identifying details. The stench of death filled the air and booms echoed through the woods as Ukrainian forces cleared a nearby area.

Several investigators in white coveralls and gloves stood in the large pit where the soldiers’ mass grave was discovered. They put each body in a white plastic bag, then carried the bags to nearby flat ground. A worker then unzipped each bag to closely examine its contents. The identities of the soldiers were unknown – their faces were so damaged or decayed by time underground that they were no longer recognizable.

Clothing was searched for any clues of names. In the pockets of a man, the worker found only nasal spray and medication. Another soldier carried a silver cell phone, a wall plug, a metal spoon, headphones and two painkillers. The investigator used the man’s army fleece to wipe down the phone’s screen, then tried to turn it on before placing it in a small bag for further examination.

In the next body bag, he found a man whose left leg was crumpled under his left arm. He was shirtless and covered in sand, wearing two yellow and blue bracelets on his left wrist. Gradually, the investigator wiped away the sand to reveal several tattoos that could help determine the soldier’s identity, including one on his left arm: the name “Alina” surrounded by small hearts.

The evidence discovered at the burial site is part of a much larger story of horrors that unfolded in this city after Russian forces took control in March. Despite a sense of optimism over Ukraine’s recent victories in reclaiming territory, civilians struggling with the aftermath of the Russian occupation are still reeling from what they have endured. Some find it hard to believe that the peace in their city will hold.

About fifty people are still sleeping in the basement of a kindergarten. Some are so afraid of another attack that they refuse to go home even during the day, preferring to cook in the outdoor playground. In March, some 200 people sought refuge there, sheltering in a space so cramped that “some people would have to sleep sitting up”, said Anna Kobets, 38. An old man was killed when the yard was bombed. Even now, loud noises can send children back to the basement.

Kobets’ husband Vitaliy Kaskov, 39, was among those staying at the kindergarten when the war began. As the Russians advanced on Izyum, the former soldier buried his gun near the school to hide it from the enemy. He feared that as he scoured the city for collaborators, his presence would put other lives at risk.

Eventually, Kaskov decided to hide elsewhere. When he returned on April 20, Kobets said, he was accompanied by Russian soldiers who had beaten him so badly that he had huge marks on his scalp and could only open his eyes by rolling his head. backward. The soldiers fired in the air and on the ground. Kaskov showed the soldiers where he had buried his gun, and they took him away and brought his wife in for questioning, covering her head with a bag.

For five hours, she said, Russian soldiers tormented her psychologically, saying they were holding her father in another room and would beat him if she did not give them information about her associates. She was eventually sent back to kindergarten.

Later, his mother drove through town asking Russian soldiers and officials where her son-in-law had been taken. She eventually learned that he was alive but a prisoner of war in the Belgorod region of Russia. The family was unable to confirm this, Kobets said. They have also not seen or heard of Kaskov since the day troops took him from kindergarten in mid-April.

Local residents said on Friday many people had gone missing under similar circumstances, only one reason they feared any interaction with troops.

There were other reasons to be afraid.

A woman, whom The Washington Post does not name out of concern for her safety, said three soldiers broke into her home in March and raped her for three hours. “They were drunk and had these strange [drugged] eyes,” she said. “Blood flowed from me afterwards. I couldn’t leave my house for a week.

She tried to protect her daughters, aged 15 and 22, from the same fate. But desperate for money, the sisters went out one day to look for work as cleaners, she said. The Russian soldiers took the youngest home, alone.

“I don’t know where she is,” the mother said Friday, mourning her eldest daughter. “I do not know!”

Another group of soldiers insisted on squatting in the same house where she and several other people were staying, forcing the Ukrainians to sleep on the floor in one room. For three days they were not allowed to go to the toilet, she said. She only got a spoonful of porridge, she said, and was so hungry her head was spinning.

Since Russian forces left the city about a week ago, aid workers have been distributing food aid to civilians. But many only survive on what little they can muster.

Viktor Boyarintsev, 68, picked up a box of food from a document on his pad on Friday – his first aid for months.

“Quick quick!” his neighbors shouted as others ran down the street hoping to receive a package.

Boyarintsev wept as he described how his wife died of a treatable heart condition because they couldn’t get the medicine she needed. Afraid of dying in the bombings if he buried her himself, he gave her to a local funeral service who sent him a picture of her body and a number on the cross they planted on top of the falls.

He still takes care of the roses his wife planted before she died. With no heat and plummeting temperatures, he cuddles his two cats for warmth, but fears this winter will be as bad as the last.

Finding creative ways to eat and stay warm is how civilians say they survived the occupation.

An older resident, who only gave his name to Mykola, has been living with an unexploded rocket lodged in his water pump well since April. At first he was scared, he said. But this is the only place where he can draw water. “So I just got used to it,” he said.

This rocket, however, was one of the least of its problems. “There were planes dropping bombs. It’s good that I survived every second,” he said.

He has made a wood-burning stove to heat his home and has since collected scrap wood at old Russian checkpoints, carrying huge logs on the back of his bike. Without electricity or gas, the wood will help with cooking and keeping warm when the weather turns cold in the coming months.

On Friday, a cold rainstorm set in several hours after the exhumation began. The earth excavated from the graves began to turn into mud. Rain covered the plastic body bags and marks written on the side began to run.

Workers stopped to put on ponchos and then got back to work. There were still more bodies to be found.

Whitney Shefte and Serhii Mukaieliants contributed to this report.

Michael A. Bynum