Beside a sandy backroad on the outskirts of Izyum in northeastern Ukraine, a young man wearing white overalls and a medical mask sits hunched with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, looking cold and weary despite the warmth of the morning sun.
In the pine woods facing him, dozens of similarly dressed forensic staff, police officers and war crimes prosecutors move among about 450 graves that were hastily dug for people who died during Russia’s five-month occupation of Izyum, which ended on September 10th as Ukraine’s counter-attacking army retook swathes of the Kharkiv region.
Ukraine says some of the bodies show signs of violent death — not only bullet and blast wounds but marks of torture, tied hands and one with rope around the neck — and accuses Russia of committing the same kind of atrocities here as in Bucha, Irpin and other towns near Kyiv that it stormed almost seven months ago in its doomed bid to take the capital.
As television crews trail senior investigators through the tall pines, where the air turns acrid and cloying whenever the fresh breeze drops, local people wait patiently in hope of learning where loved ones are buried, seeking at least that certainty as Izyum emerges shattered and reeling from a time of isolation, fear and privation.
“My daughter had a chronic illness from childhood and was disabled, and she didn’t survive all this. It was impossible to get the medicines she needed, and she fell into a coma and died in May. She was 32,” says Lilia, as she tries to find her daughter’s makeshift grave among the hundreds in the forest and to ensure she will have a proper burial.
Locals describe how the occupation administration of Russians and collaborators allowed a funeral home to collect the dead and inter them in the forest near an existing cemetery but would not allow funerals; relatives were barred from the area and were merely told the number of the simple wooden cross on their family member’s grave.
“But when they buried my mother they didn’t even give me the number,” says Mykola Zhernovyi, standing in the woods among the plain, numbered crosses planted in the sandy soil, where about 150 graves are now open as the exhumation and identification process accelerates.
“My mum died on April 15th. She was elderly, but all of this was also terribly stressful for her. She was blind and couldn’t understand what was going on, and the heavy shelling was especially hard for her to bear.”
In March Russia and Ukraine fought a fierce battle for Izyum — a city with a pre-war population of 45,000 and key transport hub for Kharkiv region and the neighbouring Donbas area — which prompted about two-thirds of residents to flee as missile and artillery fire tore into apartment blocks and crippled electricity, gas, water and mobile phone networks.
“It was minus 20 outside and minus three in the cellar where we were sheltering. We drank melted snow and the children tried to warm their hands around candles,” recalls Viktoria as she walks through the shell-scarred centre of Izyum.
“The first lot of Russian soldiers here were just animals. They came into our flat pointing guns, smashing doors and stealing, and took things like toothbrushes, toothpaste and shampoo. They also broke into our garage and stole our car. We saw it being driven around marked with a ‘Z’,” she says, referring to Moscow’s main code letter for its invasion.
Natasha (51) also recalls the bitter cold and brutal shelling of March, and the absence of power, heat, water, mobile phone and internet services, but perhaps most painfully the constant hunger that gnawed at her as she lost 25kg in a matter of weeks.
“My neighbour and I combined what food we had and she made six litres of soup. It was so cold then, in March, just one degree where I was hiding from the shelling, and we lived on that soup for about eight days, without any bread or anything else,” Natasha says.
“I had five spoonfuls of soup for breakfast and for lunch and no dinner, and I couldn’t sleep because of the constant shelling … Everyone here can tell you a story of hunger, of when they dissolved a tin of meat in a bucket of water.”
Natasha (51) says she “prayed for Ukraine to return here” and for the health of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but admits to taking a low-level job in the occupation administration.
“Hunger drove a lot of people to go to them … People living here had to find a way to survive and adapt,” she says, describing how administration staff received a few extra tins of meat in the meagre monthly food parcels handed out by the Russians. Now she fears punishment as Ukraine pledges to root out collaborators in formerly occupied areas and as recrimination grows, with some Izyum residents accusing its mayor and other officials of “abandoning” them by fleeing the city before the Russians seized it.
“Honestly, we didn’t really understand what was going on. We went to sleep under the control of one state and woke up under another,” Viktoria says of Russia’s sudden withdrawal from Izyum this month in the face of a stunning Ukrainian counter-offensive. “My emotions were all over the place. I was happy, I think, but I also knew there would be no stability, no certainty about the power and water supplies, and no end to fear. And the fighting is still not far away.”
Serhiy Bolvinov, the chief police investigator for Kharkiv, says his force now “controls all the de-occupied territory in the region, but some areas bordering occupied territory and the Russian frontier are still being hit with artillery.”
As well as the makeshift cemetery in Izyum — where most of the 450 or so graves are thought to contain the bodies of civilians — and an adjacent pit that held the remains of 17 Ukrainian soldiers, Bolvinov says other, smaller graves where the Russians may have buried bodies are also being investigated in recently liberated areas.
He says several suspected Russian torture chambers have also been found in Izyum and elsewhere in Kharkiv region, and that seven Sri Lankan citizens who arrived in Ukraine just before the start of all-out war in February are now free after being held captive, beaten and treated as “slaves” by Russian troops during their occupation of the town of Vovchansk.
“I think Ukraine is here to stay,” Natasha says in central Izyum, as scores of people gather to receive food parcels from Ukrainian charity workers in the main square.
But she admits that for her, as for many people in Izyum and the surrounding area, anxiety remains even though the Russian army has fled.
“Now, when I’m working in my garden, I’m particularly careful in the long grass because of mines and unexploded bombs,” she explains.
“Practically every family here has lost or had someone injured during the war. For half a year there was bombing all the time and from all directions around Izyum. But now people are most scared of silence — when everything is quiet, quiet, and then suddenly close by, out of nowhere — boom! — there could be another explosion.”