A wooded area in Izium, a town in northeastern Ukraine recently reclaimed from Russia, has become the latest known site of mass burials, with over 440 individual graves reported by investigators at the scene. Among the first bodies to be exhumed there were children and entire families, according to Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy. There were also people with signs of torture, hands tied behind their backs, and signs indicating death by gunfire, artillery fire or exploding mines.
In images published in local news outlets and shared on social media, several soldiers are seen standing near numerous wooden crosses, some of which are numbered. Similar scenes have already taken place in other cities such as Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, or in Bucha, in the center of the country. The Ukrainian president has described it as war crimes.
“I can say that here is one of the largest graves in a liberated city, with more than 440 graves,” said Oleh Kotenko, head of the Kharkiv region police investigation department, in statements to Sky News. Thanks to the ongoing investigation, he added, there is already some information available about some of the victims. But many of the bodies have yet to be exhumed before the cause of death can be established. Most victims were found in individual graves, but investigators also found a mass grave with the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
“The whole world should see this,” said Zelenskiy on Friday.
“Russia leaves only death and suffering. Murderers. Torturers,” the president wrote on his Telegram channel. “Deprived of everything human. You won’t run away. You won’t hide. Retribution will be justly dreadful. For every Ukrainian, for every tortured soul.”
The dead can provide a wealth of information. This has been the case in Bucha, where dozens of bodies were found when the invading troops withdrew, and also in other towns in the belt surrounding the capital, Kyiv, which became the first target of the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24. The battle for the Kyiv region lasted just over a month. The area of more than 8,000 square kilometers now recaptured in the Kharkiv region, bordering Russia, has been under Moscow’s control for more than six months, leading local authorities to believe that there is much to find out and investigate, according to the governor, Oleh Syehubov.
The graves found in Izium open a new window on the investigations that Kyiv authorities are opening into possible war crimes in reclaimed areas. EL PAÍS has seen how members of the police, the Ministry of the Interior and the Attorney General’s Office have been deployed in these towns to gather as much information as possible and seek accountability. The exhumations are taking place with the help of testimony by neighbors.
The Balakliia Police Station was for the past half a year the headquarters of the Russian troops in that town. The cells of the detainees were used to hold dozens of prisoners who were interrogated and tortured, as Ayrtom, 47, who was arrested for 46 days and received electric shocks for being the brother of a soldier, told this newspaper last Tuesday.