Even torrential rain couldn’t erase the smell of death in the Izyum pine forest on Friday afternoon, as Ukrainian investigators made their way through a mass burial site found in an eastern Ukrainian city after recapturing it from Russian forces.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said at least 440 “unmarked” graves had been found in the city in recent days. The country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that some of the bodies found at Izium showed “signs of torture,” and he blamed Russia for what he called “cruelty and terror.”
Zelensky posted a photo of the ongoing exhumation at a mass burial site near the city of Izium. In a text attached to the photo on his Telegram channel, Zelensky wrote: “The whole world should see this. A world in which there should not be cruelty and terror. But all this is there. And its name is Russia. ”
Isium came under heavy Russian artillery attacks in April. The city, located near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important center of the invading army during the five months of occupation. Ukrainian forces retook control of the city on Saturday, dealing a strategic blow to Russia’s military offensive in the east.
When CNN arrived at the mass burial site on Friday afternoon, officials were transporting body bags, including one that appeared to be carrying something very small, in a refrigerated truck.
Most of the graves at the burial site are single graves, with wooden crosses placed on top of the earthen mounds. Some of them have names and numbers written on them. One was rising to 398. The other was named after an 82-year-old man. An official at the site told CNN that investigations should determine when these people died.
In the woods is what appeared to be a former military post, with tank positions dug deep into the ground.
A policeman at the scene told CNN that the place was a mass grave where 17 bodies were found.
“These are other civilian and military bodies along the way,” said Igor Garmash, the site investigator, of the exact part of the site he was examining, pointing to a nearby site.
“More than 20 bodies have been examined and sent for further investigation,” he told CNN.
The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves discovered in Izyum were “fresh” and that the bodies buried there were “mostly civilians”.
Dmytro Lubinets, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Verkhovna Rada, said in a video statement from the site: “There is a whole family next to me … this is a young family … the father was born in 1988, the wife was born in 1991, their little daughter was born in 2016. ”
He said local residents told investigators that the family had died in a Russian airstrike.
We also saw here a mass burial of soldiers of the Ukrainian army. “The way they were buried – you’ll see evidence that their hands were tied, they were killed at close range,” Lubinets said.
An Izium resident who lives across the street from the mass burial site told CNN that the Russians first hit a nearby cemetery in the city with an airstrike and then moved in.
They brought their own machines. They dug some trenches for their cars. “We just heard how they destroyed the forest,” Nadezhda Kalinichenko told CNN.
She said she tried not to go out during the time the city was under Russian occupation because she was too scared.
“When they left, I don’t know if there was a fight or not. We just heard a lot of heavy trucks one night a week ago.
During his speech on Thursday, Zelensky said that Russia must be held accountable for the deaths there and in other cities where large numbers of bodies were found.
“Bocha, Mariupol and now, unfortunately, Izyum … Russia is leaving death everywhere. And it must be responsible for this. The world must hold Russia real responsibility for this war. We will do everything for this.”
The governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinihopov, said that “the scale of the crimes committed by the invaders in Izyum is enormous. This is a bloody, savage horror.”
Sinihopov said that “450 bodies of civilians bearing traces of violence of death and torture were buried in a forest belt. It is hard to imagine something like this in the 21st century, but now it is a tragic reality in Izyum.”
Among the bodies exhumed on Friday, “99 per cent showed signs of violent death,” Sinihopov said.
There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and a person buried with a rope around his neck. It is clear that these people were tortured and executed. There are also children among the buried.
Zelensky talks to CNN about Ukraine’s counterattack against Russia
Meanwhile, Ole Kotenko, Ukraine’s Commissioner for Missing Persons, said in a Telegram post that searches for the remains of “fallen heroes” are being conducted with caution throughout the region.
The biggest problem is that some areas are still mined. Despite this, we continue to work, because we have to bring each hero home so that families can honor the memory of the soldiers who died for Ukraine in a dignified way as soon as possible,” Kotenko said.
Zelensky visited Izyum on Wednesday and told reporters he was “shocked” by the number of “destroyed buildings” and “dead people” left in the wake of the Russian occupation.
In his Friday evening address, Zelensky said that exhumations at the mass burial site were continuing and that “it is still too early to speak about the total number of people buried there.”
He added that investigations are underway in all regions of the country that have been recaptured from Russian forces, and that a number of civilians, including foreigners, who were being held in occupied cities and towns, were found alive.
He said that among the rescued foreigners were seven Sri Lankan students. They were studying at the medical college in Kobyansk but in March Russian soldiers were captured and held in a basement. “Only now, after the liberation of the Kharkiv region, these people have been rescued and adequate medical care is provided to them,” Zelensky said.
A UN source told CNN that a team from the UN human rights monitoring agency – OCHR – will go to Izium and surrounding areas as soon as possible.
The source said that the war crimes investigation team may follow up after that. Their exact destination is still unclear at this time.
Moscow was using Izyum as a staging post for attacks south into the Donetsk and Kobyansk region, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) north of Izyum, and as a railroad hub to resupply its forces.
Zelensky also thanked foreign governments for sending investigators and prosecutors to investigate alleged human rights violations by the occupying forces in Ukraine, adding that all occupied areas would eventually return.
Ukrainian forces launched a continuous military offensive, especially in the northeastern and southern regions of the country.
Zelensky said Tuesday that 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of land has now been liberated by Ukrainian forces so far this month, with nearly half of the area still undergoing “stabilization” measures.