At the mass grave in Northeastern Ukraine, a sign of collecting professional fees

IZIUM, Ukraine – Hundreds of graves have been dug deep into the sandy soil of a pine forest, isolated and unexplored. A chilly wind blew through the branches. The police officers spoke in a discreet voice. And the newly dug up bodies lay sprawled on the forest floor.

Just a week after Russian forces fled northeastern Ukraine in a frenzied retreat, and days after President Volodymyr Zelensky Flag raising On the newly reclaimed city of Izium, Ukrainian investigators on Friday began a daunting task: documenting the amount of damage to the city during its six-month occupation by Russia.

They found several burial sites. One of the pine forests, the largest of which, may contain the remains of more than 400 people who died during the nearly six-month Russian occupation, Ukrainian officials said.

The identities of many of the people buried at that site and the cause of death are still unknown. It is also unclear how many are civilians and how many are soldiers. But the size of the grave underscores how deeply Ukraine has suffered since the Russian invasion, estimated in the tens of thousands across the country. And it reminds me evidence of atrocities by Russian soldiers in towns like Bucha, near the capital Kyiv, investigators said.

In Izium, as well as dozens of other towns, villages, and cities that were recaptured during the northern Ukrainian counteroffensive, residents lived and died for months under the control of the Russian army. If the Ukrainian army could recapture more of the places where the Russians were forced to retreat in haste, there would be more such graves.

Local officials estimate that up to 1,000 people died in Izium during the occupation, many due to lack of medicine and medical care. The city had a population of about 40,000 before the war, although it is estimated that only 10,000 inhabitants remained during the fighting.

The grand burial site in Izium includes about 445 individual graves and one mass grave, where soldiers appear to have been buried, officials said. Several people were killed when a Russian air strike leveled an apartment building in March, according to residents. Serhiy Shtanko, 33, said: “These are my neighbors and friends.

The individual graves are next to an older cemetery, but not within its grounds. Crosses from rough planks with only a number written on them stood above most of them. The mass grave is marked with a cross that says “Seventeen Ukrainian Army Soldiers.”

Dmytro Lubinets, the human rights commissioner for Ukraine’s parliament, said they had been “piled up and buried”.

Some individual graves bear names and dates of birth and death. Flowers have been placed near the burial places of several people whose identities have been identified.

Among the bodies that were exhumed Friday were members of a family – mother, father, daughter and two grandparents – killed in Russian bombardment in the spring, officials said. Ukraine said.

Serhiy Bolvinov, chief investigator of the Kharkiv regional police force, said the others died more recently and showed signs of strangulation.

Russian forces took control of Izium at the end of March, making it an important railway hub become a military stronghold and prepare for its assault on eastern Ukraine. They fled last weekend as Ukrainian forces redirect the Russians to the northeast and reclaimed thousands of square miles.

Officials invited journalists to witness the excavation on Friday, to call attention to what they see as evidence of more atrocities by Russian soldiers. “The whole world should see this place,” Mr. Lubinets said. “For us, it shows that the Russians have committed a crime, and not only a crime, but also a genocide of the Ukrainian people. In this place we see women and children.”

Raisa Derevianko, 65, a retiree who lives across the street from the graveyard, said the Russians would send the dead into the woods almost every night.

“We didn’t see the person they buried,” she said. After the Ukrainian Army repelled the Russian forces, she walked into the woods and found the mass grave. “A big stinking hole,” she said.

Many Russian military units and a chaotic mixture of mercenaries and military police units rotated through the towns and villages during the occupation. Ihor Levchenko, a resident of Balakliya, a town northwest of Izium, said some were more brutal than others.

Bodies lay on the streets in the first days after the Russian invasion, but were quickly cleared. “At first I only saw bodies,” he said.

The head of the National Police, Ihor Klymenko, said law enforcement agencies had opened 204 criminal proceedings in the past week related to war crimes they say were perpetrated by Russian forces. Speaking at a news conference on Friday, he said investigators were examining 10 sites in the Kharkiv region where Russians are suspected of torturing Ukrainians.

The investigations go back to the days in the spring after Russian troops withdrew from the area around Kyiv, when journalists and human rights groups discovered substantial evidence of atrocities by the forces. Russia, including witness statements, satellite images and photos and videos. The Kremlin has denied reports that its military has committed atrocities against civilians.

In the northeastern region of Kharkiv, Ukrainians fear the Russian military will have months to cover up any crimes. The territorial expansion alone poses a significant challenge to Ukrainian prosecutors, who are trying to treat hundreds of villages and towns spanning thousands of square miles as a crime scene.

In addition, the job of identifying the dead is difficult, time-consuming, and grim. In Bucha, forensic experts have been working since the spring but have yet to identify all those killed.

The investigators in Izium wore blue hospital gowns over their uniforms, rubber gloves, and a mask against disgust. Soldiers assisted them in digging with shovels until they reached a body, then crept up to clear the sand around the edges.

Two or three soldiers and police would then climb into the grave to pull the bodies out of the dust.

At one point, they groan and heave a dried corpse, dressed in winter coats and pants, to the surface.

A police investigator unlocked his jacket and rummaged through his pockets for items that could have been helpful in identifying the victim, finding eye drops, a crumpled piece of paper and a lighter.

“The whole world should see this,” Zelensky wrote in a Telegram post on Friday along with pictures of investigators working at the site. He said that among the bodies were children, corpses showing signs of torture, victims of missile attacks and Ukrainian soldiers.

Zelensky added: “Russia leaves only death and suffering. “The killers. Torture man. Deprive people of everything. You will not run away. You will not escape. The retribution will be terrible. “

An Izium resident named Pavlo, who asked only to be identified out of fear of reprisals, said many people died during the initial Russian siege, which destroyed many buildings.

He and other volunteers searched the wreckage, he said in a phone interview, finding hundreds of bodies day in and day out.

“We put them in the car, drove to the riverbank, walked on a stretcher over a homemade wooden bridge and then continued toward the cemetery,” Pavlo said.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Izium, Ukraine and Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine. Anna Lukinova reporting contributions from Kyiv, and Maria Varennikova from Izium.

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