Investigators on Friday began exhuming the bodies of more than 400 civilians buried in a makeshift cemetery and as many as 17 Ukrainian soldiers buried in a mass grave in the same spot. The area, located in a forest just outside Izyum, had been used as a Russian military position.
Officials said they quickly noticed signs of torture on some of the corpses. At least one had a rope around his neck, they said.
“Bucha, Mariupol, now unfortunately Izyum,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday, citing other places where occupying Russian forces inflicted widespread violence on civilians. “Russia leaves death everywhere.”
About 100 researchers stoically excavated the graves — each marked with a simple wooden cross and 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 forests as Ukrainian troops cleared a nearby area.
Several investigators in white overalls and gloves stood in the large pit where the soldiers’ mass grave was discovered. They put each body in a white plastic bag and then carried the bags to the flat ground nearby. A worker then unzipped each bag to carefully examine the contents. The soldiers’ identities were unknown – their faces were so damaged or decayed from underground time that they were no longer recognizable.
Clothing was searched for clues to names. In one man’s pockets, the worker found only nasal spray and medicines. Another soldier was carrying a silver mobile, a plug, a metal spoon, headphones and two painkillers. The investigator used the man’s army coat to wipe the phone screen, then tried to turn it on before putting it in a small bag for further examination.
In the next body bag, he found a man whose left leg was crumpled high under his left arm. Shirtless and covered in sand, he wore two yellow and blue armbands on his left wrist. Little by little, the researcher brushed off the sand and revealed several tattoos that could help identify the soldier, including one on his left arm: the name “Alina” with little hearts around it.
Evidence found in the cemetery is part of a much larger story about the horrors that unfolded in this city after Russian troops took power in March. Despite a sense of optimism about Ukraine’s recent victories in regaining territory, citizens who must endure the aftermath of the Russian occupation are still wavering about what they endured. Some have trouble believing that peace will last in their city.
About 50 people still sleep in the basement of a kindergarten. Some are so afraid of another attack that they refuse to go home even during the day, instead cooking in the outdoor playground. In March, some 200 people sought safety there, sheltering in such a cramped space that “some people would have to sleep seated,” said Anna Kobets, 38. An old man was killed when the courtyard was shelled. Even now, loud noises can cause the kids to sprint back to the basement.
Kobets’ husband, Vitaliy Kaskov, 39, was one of those who stayed in kindergarten at the beginning of the war. As the Russians approached Izyum, the former soldier buried his weapon near the school to hide it from the enemy. He feared that if they scoured the city for collaborators, his presence might endanger other lives.
In the end, Kaskov decided to hide somewhere else. When he returned on April 20, Kobets said, he was joined by Russian soldiers who had beaten him so hard that he had huge welts on his scalp and could only open his eyes by rolling his head back. The soldiers fired into the air and onto the ground. Kaskov showed the troops where he had buried his weapon, and they took him and brought his wife in for questioning, covering her head with a bag.
For five hours, she said, the Russian soldiers tormented her psychologically, saying they would hold her father in another room and beat him if she didn’t give them information about collaborators. She was eventually returned to kindergarten.
Her mother later walked through the city and asked Russian soldiers and officials where her son-in-law had been taken. Finally she learned that he was still alive, but as a prisoner of war in the Belgorod region of Russia. The family has not been able to confirm this, Kobets said. Nor have they seen or heard from Kaskov since the day the troops took him out of kindergarten in mid-April.
Local residents said on Friday that many people in similar circumstances were missing, just one reason they feared interaction with the troops.
There were other reasons to be afraid.
A woman, whom The Washington Post did not name out of concerns for her safety, said three soldiers broke into her home in March and raped her for three hours. “They were drunk and had that strange… [drugged] eyes,” she said. “The blood gushed from me after that. 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 one day started looking for work as cleaners, she said. Russian soldiers brought the youngest back home – alone.
“I don’t know where she is,” the mother said Friday, crying for her eldest daughter. “I don’t know!”
Another group of soldiers insisted on squatting in the same house where they and several other people were staying, forcing the Ukrainians to sleep on the floor of a single room. They were not allowed to go to the toilet for three days, she said. She only got one spoonful of porridge to eat, she said, and she was so hungry it made her head spin.
Since Russian troops left the city about a week ago, humanitarian aid workers have been distributing food aid to civilians. But many survive only on what little they can scrape together.
Viktor Boyarintsev, 68, picked up a box of food supplies from a handout in his block on Friday — his first aid in months.
“Quick quick!” his neighbors yelled as others ran down the street hoping to receive a package.
Boyarintsev wept as he described how his wife had died of treatable heart disease because they couldn’t get the medicines she needed. Fearing that he would die in the shelling if he buried her himself, he handed her over to a local funeral service who sent him a photo of her body and a number on the cross they had planted atop the grave.
He still takes care of the roses his wife planted before she died. With no heat and dropping temperatures, he cuddles his two cats for warmth — but worries this winter could be just as bad as the last.
Finding creative ways to eat and keep warm is how citizens say they survived the occupation.
An elderly resident, who only mentioned his name as Mykola, has been living with an unexploded rocket in his water pump well since April. At first he was afraid, he said. But it’s the only place where he can collect water. “So I’m just used to it,” he said.
That missile, however, was one of the least of his problems. “There were planes dropping bombs. It’s good that I survived every second,” he said.
He built a wood stove to heat his house and has been collecting wood scraps at former Russian checkpoints ever since, with huge logs on the back of his bike. Without electricity or gas, the wood will help to cook and stay warm when the weather turns cold in the coming months.
On Friday, a cold rainstorm began several hours after the excavation began. Dirt dug from the graves began to turn to mud. Rain covered the plastic body bags and markings on the side began to run.
The workers paused to put on ponchos and then went back to work. There were more bodies to be found.
Whitney Shefte and Serhii Mukaieliants contributed to this report.