Ukraine. Torture and Mass Graves: The Horrors of the Russian Occupation of Izium | International

Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 400 people were buried in a wooded area of ​​Izium, a town in northeastern Ukraine, after being killed during the six-month Russian occupation. Many victims were shot, while others showed signs of torture. Others died in bombardments or from illnesses caused by poor living conditions. On Saturday, workers in white coveralls drove their shovels into the ground next to each of the wooden crosses. After digging about 80 centimeters, they reached their goal. The work slowed until they were able to extract the body. Some couldn’t stand the nausea. No voice was louder than another, despite the fact that more than 50 people were working at the same time in several tombs. The area, speckled with holes like Swiss cheese, was marked off with plastic tape tied to tree trunks. These are the first steps taken by the Ukrainian authorities to reveal the crimes of the Russian occupation of Izium.

Natalya, with jet black hair and a snow-white jumpsuit, approached the corpses as they were pulled from the ground. Some have been buried for months due to their current condition. The woman, who would not make a statement or give her last name, was not wearing a mask. She seemed immune to the plague and horror before her. His blue rubber gloves first removed dirt from the corpse’s face, then from the rest of the body. Squatting, she then moved the joints, lifted the clothes, touched the stomach, examined the teeth… She often looked down a few centimeters from the remains to grasp the details. Some clothes, already in poor condition, fell apart when touched. While examining the body, she made comments which were noted by a member of the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office. “Blue cotton underpants; black cotton socks. The body is in an advanced stage of decomposition. Gray hair about two inches long. Eyes rot. Prosthesis partially extracted. The body shows no signs of torture.

Natalya, a coroner, examines a man’s body, checking to see if he was tortured.Luis de Vega

Investigators also searched the victims’ pockets for documents or personal items that could help identify the body. If anything was found, they put it in a plastic bag with the number assigned to the victim. Among the bodies exhumed on Saturday, nearly a dozen could not be identified. The corpses were placed in white body bags, with the victim’s sex and number written in black letters. Numbers 106, 107, 108 and 116 were female, while number 92 was male. They were all marked as “unidentified”. However, some bodies have been identified. From tomb 117, investigators exhumed Alexei Zolotorov. A wooden slat indicates that he was born on March 15, 1990 and died on March 29.

Kyiv has opened an investigation into whether Russian forces committed possible war crimes during their six-month occupation of Izium. Thousands of Russian troops fled after Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive on September 6. But at least two Russian soldiers, who were unable to flee, were arrested, according to footage recorded by local soldiers to which EL PAÍS had access. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Izium, technicians attempt to repair power lines, while deminers comb the area with metal detectors. The Russian occupation has left a trail of devastation in Izium, just as it did last April in Bucha, near Kyiv.

A group of workers prepare to exhume bodies on Saturday.
A group of workers prepare to exhume bodies on Saturday.Luis de Vega

Some of the bodies exhumed from Izium Forest had their hands tied behind their backs. Others were shot or showed signs of torture. In some cases, there was a rope around the victim’s neck, according to sources from Ukraine’s war crimes prosecutor’s office. On the way to the sea of ​​wooden crosses, most of which were identified only by a simple marker number, one grave was larger than the others. This grave contained the remains of 17 local soldiers who had been transferred from the morgue and buried together. Sources from Ukraine’s war crimes prosecutor’s office said the victims were shot and some were tortured. But it is not known whether they died on the same day. “Three of them were identified by the documents they were carrying,” confirmed Roman Kasjanenko, from the region’s prosecutor’s office.

One of the few identified victims was five-year-old Olesya Stolpakova, who died on March 9 with her parents. That day, Russian planes bombed a building in the center of Izium, killing dozens of people. The building was broken in two and is now surrounded by rubble. Prior to the Russian invasion, Izium was home to approximately 45,000 people; today it is a ghost town. Back in the wooded area, a couple, Oxana and Volodymyr, arrived to search for the bodies of an aunt and cousin who were also killed in the bombing.

A notebook containing information about the burials helped investigators identify the victims. The notebook was kept by a man who kept funeral records before the Russian occupation. “He did what he had to do under the occupation, bury people,” said Yuri Kravchenko, chief medical examiner of the Kharkov region, before adding that the worker probably did not have the choice. According to Kravchenko, when exhumations began on Friday, the worker was already at the site assisting police.

Alexander, 50, is visiting his mother, Alina, who died in May at the age of 69 for health reasons.
Alexander, 50, is visiting his mother, Alina, who died in May at the age of 69 for health reasons.Luis de Vega

The first to arrive at the mass grave site on Saturday was Alexander. He cycled into the wooded area just before 10 a.m., while investigators were still putting on their coveralls. Alexander was there to visit the grave of his mother, Alina, who died aged 69 on May 18 during the Russian occupation due to poor health. The wooden cross that marked his grave was one of the few with a name. Alexander lifted the wreath against the cross to show the plaque, with his name, date of birth and date of death. He paid 2,200 hryvnias (about $55) for a funeral, supervised by the Russian army, which he was able to attend. “I was lucky because I convinced them not to charge me for the coffin,” said Alexander, a gas station worker by profession.

“I don’t think all Russians are to blame for this like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his team,” Alexander said, next to his mother’s grave. Alina herself was born in Belarus, which supports the Kremlin. “It’s normal here that almost all of us have family and people we know in Russia and Belarus,” he added. The Kharkiv region, where Izium is located, borders Russia and many residents have maintained ties with the neighboring country even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Alexander, meanwhile, said he was wracked with grief. He was surprised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and although his mother was not a direct victim of the war, he decided to leave her body in the pine forest in remembrance of the horrors committed by their Russian neighbors .

Several workers put a victim in a body bag.
Several workers put a victim in a body bag.Luis de Vega

Michael A. Bynum