Officials carry bodies from unidentified makeshift graves at the Pishanske cemetery on September 19, 2022 in Izyum, Ukraine.
Officials carry bodies from unidentified makeshift graves at the Pishanske cemetery on September 19, 2022 in Izyum, Ukraine. © Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Izyum Residents Describe Mass Graves and Torture

Nearly six months of Russian occupation have left behind a terrible legacy.

Tuesday, 20 September, 2022

Entry into the newly-liberated city of Izyum begins with a Ukrainian army checkpoint. Everyone is searched, and even volunteers bringing in badly-needed humanitarian aid must obtain authorisation from the military administration.

 Inside the city, along a main road patrolled by Russian troops just a week ago, a sign reading Izyum Welcomes Guests is surrounded by looted shops and gas stations. Here and there lie the blackened walls of apartments wrecked in airstrikes.

The occupation lasted for nearly six months, during which time Russian forces used the city as a logistical hub and key base for strikes in the eastern Donbas region.

Ukrainian investigators are now excavating hundreds of graves in the city’s pine forest, with more than 150 bodies discovered so far. Testimonies are also emerging about civilians subjected to widescale torture in Russian army prisons.

Izyum resident Ihor said that locals were forced to live according to the strict regime imposed by the Russians. Curfew times, either from 5pm or 8pm in the evening, can still be seen daubed on bus stops and on fences. In any case, he continued, people stayed at home as much as possible so as to escape the attention of the occupying forces.

 “I tried not to leave my house because as soon as I left, Russian soldiers stole potatoes from me,” said local man Ihor. “And so it was with everyone. They were checking to see if anyone was home. If no one was there, they climbed over the fence and took everything.”

Ihor said that Russians had taken people to detention centre basements for questioning. After a few days they would be released, intimidated and reluctant to talk about their experiences.

Those who died or were killed during this period were hastily buried in makeshift graves.

"There were burials in the forest, where they were buried by numbers so that, when a peaceful time came it would be possible to rebury there,” Ihor said, adding that the Russians had disposed of bodies by the pedestrian bridge.

“People knew that they could find their killed relatives there,” he continued. “Our soldiers were also lying there, in uniform. They were buried in a mass grave.”

 "They found mass graves,” said a soldier who was present during the exhumations. “More than 450 civilians have already been dug up there. About 30 soldiers were found in one mass grave alone…their bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs.”

SEVERE SHORTAGES

Throughout the months of occupation, city residents lived without electricity, water or access to information.

In April, a Russian shell fell in Ihor's yard and destroyed half of his house. During the summer, he said, it was still possible to live there, but he feared that it would be inhabitable come the chill of autumn.

People still light fires out of doors to cook food. With no assurances that the authorities will be immediately able to restore heating or electricity supply, they fear what will happen come winter.

Volunteers have arrived to distribute essential aid, but the residents remain desperate. Many simply want to stockpile whatever fresh food and medicine they can find, after six months of severe shortages.

“They grab everything like that,” said a soldier guarding the aid distribution.

One elderly woman standing in line said that she had spent her days hiding in her basement.

“I wouldn't wish that on anyone, no one should know or see such a thing,” she said, adding that she was waiting to receive medicine. “My leg hurts, I need an ointment.”

 An explosion in the distance makes the crowds scatter; they are all too familiar with incoming fire. It turns out that it was not due to an enemy strike, but the work of sappers neutralising unexploded ordinance.

An estimated 80 per cent of the city’s buildings have been damaged as a result of the invasion. Almost every building on the left bank of Izyum appears to have been hit by artillery shells.

It is hard to even access this part of the city; the bridge was destroyed in the fighting, and a pontoon crossing recently installed is jammed with a chaotic mix of cyclists, motorbikes and lorries.

Local resident Valentina said that she had been forced to move in with friends after her apartment received a direct hit.

“Our Ukrainian military told everyone to leave their apartments because there would be an incoming missile,” she recalled. “It hit very hard. It is impossible to live there now [but] I really want to go home.”

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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