Written by Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora
Hundreds of graves had been cut into the sandy soil of a pine forest, isolated and unexamined. A chilly wind blew through the tree branches. Police officers spoke in hushed tones. And newly dug up bodies lay all about on the forest floor.
Just a week after Russian forces fled northeastern Ukraine in a frantic retreat, and days after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy raised the flag over the newly reclaimed city of Izium, Ukrainian investigators on Friday began a painstaking task: documenting the toll on the city of six months under Russian occupation.
They have already found several burial sites. The one in the pine forest, the largest of those, could hold the remains of more than 400 people who died during almost six months of Russian occupation, Ukrainian officials said.
The identities of many of those buried at that site and the causes of death remain unknown. Nor is it clear how many were civilians and how many were soldiers. But the scale of the gravesite underscored the depth of Ukrainian losses since Russia invaded, an estimated tens of thousands of people around the country. And it recalled the broad evidence of atrocities by Russian soldiers in towns like Bucha, near the capital of Kyiv, investigators said.
In Izium, as in dozens of other towns, villages and cities retaken in Ukraine’s northern counteroffensive, residents lived and died for months under the authority of Russian troops. Should Ukraine’s military be able to reclaim more places where Russians were forced into a hasty retreat, more such graves are expected.
Local officials estimate that as many as 1,000 people died in Izium during the occupation, many from a lack of medicine and medical care. The city had a prewar population of some 40,000, although only an estimated 10,000 residents remained during the fighting.
The large burial site in Izium consisted of around 445 individual graves and one mass grave where soldiers appeared to have been buried, officials said. Some had died when a Russian airstrike leveled an apartment building in March, according to residents. “Here are my neighbors and friends,” said Serhiy Shtanko, 33.
The individual graves were next to an older cemetery but not on its grounds. Crosses from rough-hewed boards with only a number written on them stood over most of them. The mass grave was marked with a cross saying “Seventeen Ukrainian army soldiers.”
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, said they had been “heaped into a bunch and buried.”
Some individual graves bore names and birth and death dates. Flowers had been laid near the burial locations of some of the people whose identities had been determined.
Among the bodies already exhumed Friday were members of one family — a mother, father, daughter and two grandparents — killed in Russian bombardments in the spring, Ukrainian officials said.
Others had died more recently and bore signs of strangulation, said Sergei Bolvinov, the lead investigator for the Kharkiv regional police force.
Russian forces took control of Izium in late March, turning the key railway hub into a military stronghold and staging ground for its assault on eastern Ukraine. They fled last weekend as Ukrainian forces routed the Russians across the northeast and reclaimed thousands of square miles.
Officials invited journalists to witness the exhumation process Friday, to call attention to what they claimed was evidence of more atrocities by Russian soldiers. “The whole world should see this place,” Lubinets said. “For us, it shows the Russians made a crime, and not only a crime, but genocide of the Ukrainian population. In this place we see women and children.”
Raisa Derevianko, 65, a retiree who lived across the street from the gravesite, said that the Russians would bring the dead to the forest nearly every night.
“We didn’t see whom they burying,” she said. After the Ukrainian army pushed the Russian forces out, she walked into the forest and found the mass grave. “One huge hole was stinking,” she said.
Multiple Russian military units and a disorderly mix of mercenaries and military police units rotated through towns and villages during the occupation. Some were more brutal than others, said Ihor Levchenko, a resident of Balakliya, a town northwest of Izium.
Bodies were lying on the streets in the first days after the Russian invasion but were soon cleared. “I only saw bodies at the beginning,” he said.
The head of the National Police, Ihor Klymenko, said that law enforcement agencies have opened 204 criminal proceedings over the past week related to war crimes that they say were committed by Russian forces. Speaking at a news conference Friday, he said investigators are examining 10 locations in the Kharkiv region where Russians are suspected of torturing Ukrainians.
The investigations hark back to the days in the spring after Russian troops retreated from the area around Kyiv, when journalists and human rights groups uncovered significant evidence of atrocities by Russian forces, including witness testimony, satellite imagery and photos and videos. The Kremlin has denied that its troops committed brutal acts against civilians.
In the northeastern Kharkiv region, Ukrainians fear, Russian troops would have had months to cover up any crimes. The expansiveness of the territory alone poses a significant challenge to Ukrainian prosecutors, who are trying to treat hundreds of villages and towns spread across thousands of square miles as a crime scene.
Beyond that, the task of identifying the dead is difficult, time-consuming and grim. In Bucha, forensics experts have been working since spring but have yet to identify all those killed.
Investigators in Izium wore blue hospital gowns over their uniforms, latex gloves and face masks against the reek. Soldiers assisting them dug with shovels until they reached a body, then gingerly moved away sand around the edges.
Two or three soldiers and police would then climb into the grave to pull the bodies from the dirt.
At one point, they grunted and heaved a desiccated corpse, dressed in a winter jacket and pants, to the surface.
A police investigator unzipped the jacket and searched the pockets for items possibly useful in identifying the victim, finding eye drops, a crumpled piece of paper and a cigarette lighter.
“The whole world should see this,” Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegram post Friday alongside images of investigators working at the site. He said that among the bodies were children, corpses bearing signs of torture, victims of missile attacks and Ukrainian soldiers.
“Russia leaves only death and suffering,” Zelenskyy added. “Murderers. Torturers. Deprived of everything human. You won’t run away. You won’t hide. Retribution will be justly dreadful.”
An Izium resident named Pavlo, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals, said scores of people died during the initial Russian siege, which destroyed many buildings.
He and other volunteers searched the rubble, he said in a phone interview, finding hundreds of bodies for day after day.
“We were putting them in the car, driving to the bank of the river, walking with stretchers over a self-made wooden bridge and then continuing toward the cemetery,” Pavlo said.