Izyum, a City Destroyed
“I don't have any emotions right now. All my tears have been cried.”
"It's just terrible, it's just terrible,” a young investigator said, sobbing, to her colleague. She pointed into the depths of the Izyum forest, towards the area marked by red-and-white tape wound around the trees.
“There are the corpses of a whole family: grandfather, grandmother, father, mother and two children. The corpses of the children were stacked on top of each other and wrapped in some kind of rag."
She began crying even harder and her colleague tried to calm her down, in vain.
On April 1, 2020, Russian troops captured the city of Izyum in the Kharkiv region. Just the day before, when the city of Bucha in the Kyiv region was liberated, the world was shaken by the footage of terrible crimes committed there: hundreds of bodies of civilians killed and tortured.
Now in Izyum – prized by the Russians as a key tactical position and logistics hub – the world is witnessing even more appalling scenes of murder, as well as the aftermath of the catastrophic humanitarian situation the population endured for five and-a-half months.
As we approached the mass grave site, a couple of hundred metres down an asphalt road in the pine forest, we passed several rescuers and policemen. One paused and told me, “You need to wear a mask, otherwise you will not be able to physically be near the graves."
We pulled out masks we had used during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another rescuer gave me a small box.
"Take this ointment and rub it near your nose,” he said. “After all, the corpses are in a semi-decomposed state. There is a very strong smell of corpses. Believe me, this ointment will save you," he said.
I opened the pot and smeared it near my nose. This ointment had a strong smell of menthol and really dulled all my olfactory senses.
When we came to the site, filled with hundreds of graves marked with crosses, many people were already working here.
A few metres away, I heard an employee of the state emergency service call, “Come on, guys, let's go, one-two-three-four."
He and his colleagues were pulling another corpse out of the pit; what remained was wrapped in rags.
Further ahead, I heard someone counting in the same way, but in French.
"Perhaps French experts also work here," I thought.
Other workers carefully placed the bodies in black plastic bags. Four rescuers carried a freshly exhumed corpse. One of the guys could not bear the task, dropped the corpse and began vomiting violently. No one paid any attention. He was immediately replaced.
Another corpse had just been pulled from the ground and police officers dragged it to the collection site.
"It's already the tenth," said one investigator as he diligently wrote down all the necessary information.
He explained the reason for the numbers on the crosses.
"It was the local gravediggers who buried people and numbered the crosses on the graves so that later it would be possible to somehow understand who lies there," he said.
Several cars and buses were parked in a clearing close by, along with two refrigerated vans. On their windscreens were signs reading Gruz-200, since the Soviet-Afghan war a coded designation for military and civilian dead. The drivers sat nearby and smoked one cigarette after the other.
Entering the city itself, over the pontoon bridge, we were met with an apocalyptic picture; houses destroyed down to their very foundations, holes blasted through apartment buildings, parks and squares entrances burned to the ground. We did not see any buildings fit for human habitation.
We spoke to survivors who described how Russian aircraft had dropped bombs directly on high-rise buildings. Dozens of families died under the rubble.
Those who tried to flee found the exit from the city blocked by Russian troops. The men were interrogated with particular brutality as the Russians sought to identify Ukrainian soldiers or those who had participated in local resistance. Woman were also raped, in danger simply if they left the shelters.
Everywhere, the occupiers painted the letter Z – the symbol of the full-scale invasion - over Ukrainian national symbols.
In the city centre, we spoke to a man and a woman sitting on a bench waiting for volunteers to hand out humanitarian aid. The man, Oleksandr, refused to be photographed because he was afraid the Russians would take revenge if they returned.
"The Russians were constantly shooting at the city,” he said. “They shot deliberately at residential buildings. There were planes and missiles here. My nine-story building collapsed on March 9, I was at home. The house started to burn, I pulled out my mother, then the neighbour, who collapsed. We rescued those we could pull out, other residents died instantly. When the rescuers started to retrieve the corpses, my mother, my neighbour and I were identifying them. Then they were picked up by a car and taken to the cemetery.”
Oleksandr said that 30 or 35 people had died there. With his home destroyed, he spent the winter in a friend’s cottage.
“I don't have any emotions right now,” he said. “All my tears have been cried.”
Another man approached to tell his own story. His family had been killed during an airstrike on a five-story building.
"My brother was found in the basement, and my aunt and brother's wife were found on the landing – not immediately, but already in April when people began to decompose. People were buried in sacks and without coffins. The Russians bombed the entire city and destroyed its entire population," he said.
Oleksandr’s companion, Olha, began to cry.
"The Russians bombed everything. Look how many people were killed by Russian shells. You need to understand that corpses were lying on the streets for weeks from the explosions in Izyum. No one took them away for a long time. Then the Russians forced local undertakers to bury people in the forest.”
The months without electricity, gas, light, water and normal food had taken their toll, she continued.
“Look what the Russians did to us. We are all like savages. We cook food on fires, forgetting when was the last time we washed,” Olha said. “I hate the Russians. Let them know it.”
This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).