Dispatch

Forest of the Dead

Another mass grave in Ukraine reveals the horrors of Russia’s occupation.

Members of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service rest.
Members of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service rest.
Members of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service rest as they work at a mass burial site during an exhumation in Izyum, Ukraine, on Sept. 16. Emre Caylak Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war.

IZYUM, Ukraine—His hands were tied before they killed him. The rope was still around his wrists when investigators pulled his badly decomposed body from a mass grave discovered last week on the edge of the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine.

Officials know little about him yet other than he was perhaps a soldier. There are few distinctive features left, just a blackened mulch of cloth and putrid flesh, but a police investigator found a crucifix around his neck. “That will help us identify him,” the investigator said, taking a moment to compose himself under the weight of the task ahead of him. 

As Russian troops retreated from the Kharkiv region last week in the face of a relentless Ukrainian counteroffensive, they left behind chilling signs of the horrors Ukrainians suffered during almost seven months of occupation. Locals speak of those who went missing and of people who were tortured; many citizens fear the proof will be found in a mass burial site discovered in the northeast of the city. It was hidden among tall pine trees in a wood where families once enjoyed barbecues. 

IZYUM, Ukraine—His hands were tied before they killed him. The rope was still around his wrists when investigators pulled his badly decomposed body from a mass grave discovered last week on the edge of the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine.

Officials know little about him yet other than he was perhaps a soldier. There are few distinctive features left, just a blackened mulch of cloth and putrid flesh, but a police investigator found a crucifix around his neck. “That will help us identify him,” the investigator said, taking a moment to compose himself under the weight of the task ahead of him. 

As Russian troops retreated from the Kharkiv region last week in the face of a relentless Ukrainian counteroffensive, they left behind chilling signs of the horrors Ukrainians suffered during almost seven months of occupation. Locals speak of those who went missing and of people who were tortured; many citizens fear the proof will be found in a mass burial site discovered in the northeast of the city. It was hidden among tall pine trees in a wood where families once enjoyed barbecues. 

Body bags are taken to refrigerated containers following the exhumation in Izyum
Body bags are taken to refrigerated containers following the exhumation in Izyum

Body bags are taken to refrigerated containers following an exhumation in Izyum on Sept. 16.

Officials say there are around 440 individual graves at the site as well as one mass pit holding at least 17 bodies thought to belong to soldiers. It was found just days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Izyum, meeting soldiers and raising the flag over the newly reclaimed city. The sandy graves are marked with rough wooden crosses and, in most cases, just a number. 

On Friday, Foreign Policy watched as police and public prosecution investigators pulled the first 40 bodies from the ground. Wearing blue or white coveralls, many looked completely overwhelmed, not least because of the acrid smell of death. There were almost immediately signs of possible war crimes: As well as the soldier with tied hands, officials said a civilian was found with broken arms and a rope around his neck, and in the days that followed, more bodies have been discovered with signs of possible torture. 

The investigation is ongoing, and the full scale of the horror that will be uncovered in the makeshift cemetery as well as how the massacre in Izyum will compare with Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine—where the bodies of hundreds of civilians were found slaughtered in the street—are still unknown. Zelensky has accused Moscow of genocide, and the Czech foreign minister, whose country serves as the current president of the Council of the European Union, called for the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal in the wake of the find. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he hoped the International Criminal Court would be able to investigate. 

In any event, the uncovering of another mass grave underlines the cost of Russia’s war on the territories it occupies: All of the dead are believed to have been killed since the invasion, many due to Russian bombardment or a lack of access to medicine and health care. Among the bodies exhumed on Friday, officials said, were five members of one family killed during Russia’s spring advance: a mother, father, child, and two grandparents. 

Another civilian with family in the mass grave is Gregory Ivanovitch, an Izyum resident since the 1960s whose wife, Ludmila, was killed in an explosion in March as they both ran to their shelter. It was winter and so cold outside that the ground was hard—it took five days to dig a hole deep enough to bury her. It was painful to lay Ludmila to rest in his garden, Gregory said, but he took solace from the fact that he was able to give her local and religious rites. However, on Aug. 22, Russian soldiers came with volunteers and said they were under orders to move her to the woods. 

“‘You take her, and I will take a gun and kill you,’ I screamed at them,” he said. “But they moved her anyway.” He said most of the families whose dead were relocated were not given a say in what happened to them, but they were told only that there were orders to clear the city of unofficial graves. 

According to Oleh Synyehubov, head of Kharkiv’s military administration, once the bodies in Izyum’s mass grave have been exhumed—a process predicted to take about two weeks—they will be examined to determine the cause of death and identified through DNA samples, with relatives notified. “Then we’ll decide what to do to bury these people with the dignity they deserve,” he said. 

“I urge the world to recognize this is the genocide of the Ukrainian people. … If you also take into account the destruction of the city, Izyum could compare as Irpin plus Bucha and multiplied by three,” Synyehubov said. 

A worker rests at a burial site in Izyum, Ukraine.
A worker rests at a burial site in Izyum, Ukraine.

A worker rests at a burial site in Izyum on Sept. 16.

The battle-scarred Kyiv suburb of Irpin has come to stand as an example of Ukrainian resistance and of Russian defeat after it was liberated in late March. However, Izyum, a key strategic city around 2 hours from Kharkiv that was occupied in early April, suffered almost a month of heavy fighting as Russians pushed to take it. Even afterward, attacks on the city did not stop until Ukraine’s lightning-fast counteroffensive to retake the Kharkiv region saw it liberated on Sept. 10. 

The operation is the most significant military action of the war on Ukraine since Russia abandoned its ambitions on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in late March. According to Kyiv, more than 8,500 square kilometers (about 3,300 square miles) have been liberated since Sept. 5, with a separate maneuver in southern Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast also creeping forward. Part of the success was due to Russian soldiers abandoning their positions, leaving behind more than 200 combat vehicles, tons of ammunition, and usable weapons systems that will now likely be repurposed by Ukraine

Most importantly though, the Kharkiv offensive showed the extent of Ukrainian grit as well as the fact that Russia can be pushed back, offering new hope for an end to the war. Hinged on new Western weaponry and the threat of the Kherson operation drawing Russian reinforcements south, it took just a few days to push Moscow’s forces back to a new defensive line about 10 miles east of Izyum. The strategic city, positioned along transportation routes, had been crucial to the Kremlin’s goal of seizing the entirety of the Donbas.

A local resident walks along a damaged square after the Russian retreat from Izyum
A local resident walks along a damaged square after the Russian retreat from Izyum

A local resident walks along a damaged square after Russia’s retreat from Izyum on Sept. 16.

A damaged tank is seen in Izyum after the Russian withdrawal.
A damaged tank is seen in Izyum after the Russian withdrawal.

A damaged tank is seen in Izyum on Sept. 16 after the Russian withdrawal.

Signposts to the recent battle are hard to miss on the road that leads to Izyum from Kharkiv: a stalled Russian tank, burned-out cars emblazoned with a “Z,” and stacks of ammunition boxes left to the wind and rain. Missiles stick out of the road while a number of the trees that once lined the way are snapped and burned. Hardly a building in the city is left undamaged, with the main administration office charred and blocks of residential apartments left with gaping holes.

In one March airstrike alone, 47 people, including seven children, were killed in a five-story apartment building, according to emergency services. It’s believed some of their bodies may have ended up in the temporary graveyard in the woods. “I feel empty inside. All the tears have gone,” said survivor Serhiy Shtanko, 33, who was at the temporary cemetery on Friday looking for news of his loved ones.

Izyum has had no internet, gas, or electricity for most of the last six months. Residents hadn’t known the scale of Russia’s occupation of the country, and they had not expected their small town of almost 46,000 people (before the war) to hit international headlines. Sitting on a bench enjoying her first outing since March with her daughter and friends, local resident Tatayana Tevetkov said her family was among the first to see Ukrainian troops arrive in the city, and they had jumped for joy.

Ukrainian soldiers stand atop a tank on the outskirts of Izyum, Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers stand atop a tank on the outskirts of Izyum, Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers stand atop a tank on the outskirts of Izyum on Sept. 16.

A member of the Ukrainian Special Forces records information on damaged buildings in Izyum, Ukraine, after the withdrawal of Russian forces.
A member of the Ukrainian Special Forces records information on damaged buildings in Izyum, Ukraine, after the withdrawal of Russian forces.

A member of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces records information on damaged buildings in Izyum on Sept. 16, after the withdrawal of Russian forces.

“When three vehicles arrived carrying our guys, I immediately felt free. Even the dogs came out and started lying in the street again,” the 32-year-old said. “Now we can sleep again. The kids can play outside and can hopefully go to school.” 

Residents said they were barely able to leave the house during the occupation and that the only food they had was what they had in stock or grew in their gardens. “The Russians gave us two cans of meat a month to eat, but it was not enough. After the first few months, they started selling what was supposed to be humanitarian aid donations from their cars,” said Oksana, 34, a mother of two, who requested not to use her full name because she has family in the military.

Some people, driven by either poverty or ideology, collaborated with Russia, but many of those individuals fled across the border when Kyiv’s troops came. Others disappeared for more sinister reasons. Ukrainian officials say they have found at least 10 torture chambers in the newly liberated towns, including in nearby Kupiansk and Balakliia.

Ukrainian police officers rest during work to exhume bodies at a mass burial site in Izyum, Ukraine.
Ukrainian police officers rest during work to exhume bodies at a mass burial site in Izyum, Ukraine.

Ukrainian police officers rest during work exhuming bodies at a mass burial site in Izyum on Sept. 16.

“My friend was captured because he was in the military in the past,” Tatyana said, who added that he got a letter asking him to come to the police department. He hasn’t been seen since. “Maybe they released him when they retreated, but I don’t see him anywhere,” she said. “Anyone accused of being in the Ukrainian army would be taken. You can see now in the woods what probably happened to them.”

Liz Cookman is a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war. Twitter: @Liz_Cookman

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