Torture, killings, abductions: Russian retreat from Izyum reveals horrors

Military and police investigators begin excavating a mass grave site in Ezem, Ukraine.
Military and police investigators begin excavating a mass grave site in Ezem, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)

IZYUM, Ukraine — Russian forces have terrorized residents during their six-month occupation of the strategic center of Izyum in northeastern Ukraine, with witnesses and victims this week describing torture, killings and enforced disappearances by soldiers. And as they testified, Ukrainian authorities, now back in control of the city, worked to uncover evidence of these potential war crimes.

On Friday, investigators began exhuming the bodies of more than 400 civilians buried in a makeshift cemetery and 17 Ukrainian soldiers buried in a mass grave at the same site. This area is located in a forest just outside of Izyum., Was used as a Russian military position.

Officials said they immediately identified signs of torture on some of the bodies. At least one had a rope around his neck, he said.

“Bocha, Mariupol, now, unfortunately, Ezeum,” President Vladimir Zelensky said on Friday, naming other places where occupying Russian forces carried out mass torture of civilians. “Russia has left death everywhere.”

About 100 investigators dug up the graves — each marked with a simple wooden cross and number — and noted the condition of the decomposing bodies, measured them and sought identification details. The stench of death filled the air, and waves echoed through the forest as Ukrainian forces decimated the nearby area.

Several investigators in white jumpsuits and gloves stood in the large pit where the soldiers’ mass grave was discovered. They put each body in a white plastic bag, then carried the bags to nearby flat ground. A worker then unzipped each bag to closely examine its contents. The identities of the soldiers were unknown – their faces had been so damaged or decayed by time underground that they were no longer recognizable.

Clothes were searched for any trace of names. In one man’s pocket, the worker found only nasal spray and medicine. Another soldier had a silver cell phone, a wall plug, a metal spoon, headphones and two painkillers. The investigator used the man’s army fleece to clean the phone’s screen, then tried to turn it on before placing it in a small bag for further examination.

In the next body bag, he found a man with his left leg high up under his left arm. He was shirtless and covered in sand, wearing two yellow and blue bracelets on his left wrist. Bit by bit, the investigator sifted through the sand to reveal several tattoos that could help determine the soldier’s identity, including one on his left arm: the name “Alena” surrounded by small hearts.

The evidence found at the burial site is part of a larger story of horrors that have unfolded in the city since Russian forces took control in March. Despite feelings of optimism over Ukraine’s recent successes in reclaiming territory, citizens struggling in the aftermath of the Russian occupation are still reeling from what they have endured. Some struggle to believe that peace will prevail in their city.

About 50 people are still sleeping in the basement of the kindergarten. Some others are so afraid of attack that they refuse to go home even during the day, instead cooking outside in the playground. In March, about 200 people sought safety there, sheltering in a space so cramped that “some people had to sit down and sleep,” said 38-year-old Anna Kubits. An old man was killed by shelling in the yard. Even now, loud noises can send kids running back to the basement.

Kubits’ husband, 39-year-old Vitaly Kaskov, was among those in kindergarten at the start of the war. As the Russians advanced on Ezeum, the ex-soldier buried his weapon near the school to hide it from the enemy. He feared that while he was scouring the city for allies, his presence might endanger other lives.

Eventually, Kaskov decided to hide elsewhere. When he returned on April 20, Kubits said he was accompanied by Russian soldiers who beat him so badly that his skull was so loose that he could only tilt his head back and open his eyes. Soldiers fired in the air and on the ground. Kaskov showed the soldiers where he had buried his weapon, and they took it and brought his wife in for questioning, covering her head with a bag.

She said that for five hours the Russian soldiers tortured her psychologically, saying that they were locking her father in another room and that they would kill her if she did not give them information about the accomplices. . Eventually she returned to kindergarten.

His mother later asked Russian soldiers and officials in the city where her son-in-law had been taken. He eventually heard that he was alive but as a prisoner of war in the Belgorod region of Russia. Cobbetts said the family was unable to confirm this. Nor have they seen or heard from Kaskov since the day soldiers took him from kindergarten in mid-April.

Local residents said on Friday that many people have gone missing under similar circumstances, only because they feared any interaction with the soldiers.

There were other reasons to be afraid.

One woman, whom The Washington Post is not naming out of concern for her safety, said three soldiers broke into her home in March and raped her for three hours. “They were drunk and they were weird. [drugged] eyes,” he said. “Later I was bleeding. I could not leave my house for a week.

She tried to save her 15- and 22-year-old daughters from the same fate. But desperate for money, the sisters went out one day looking for work as cleaners. Russian soldiers brought the boy back home alone.

“I don’t know where she is,” the mother said Friday, crying for her older daughter. “I do not know!”

Another group of soldiers insisted on squatting in the same house where he and several others were staying, forcing the Ukrainians to sleep on the floor of the same room. He said that he was not allowed to go to the bathroom for three days. She said that she was fed only one spoonful of porridge, and that she was so hungry that she felt dizzy.

Since Russian forces withdrew from the city about a week ago, humanitarian workers have been providing food aid to civilians. But many survive only on what they can scrape together.

Victor Boyarntsev, 68, picked up a box of food items from a handout on his block on Friday – his first medical aid in months.

“Hurry up!” Her neighbors screamed as others ran down the street hoping to find the package.

Boyarintsev tearfully recounted how his wife had died of a treatable heart condition because they couldn’t get the medicine she needed. Fearing that he would die in the shelling if he buried him himself, he turned him over to a local funeral service, which provided him with a photo of his body and a number on the cross above the grave. was sent

He still takes care of the roses that his wife planted before she died. With no heat and plummeting temperatures, he’s hugging his two cats for warmth — but he’s worried this winter could be as bad as last season.

Finding creative ways to eat and stay warm is how citizens say they survived the occupation.

An elderly resident, who gave his name only as Mykola, has been living with an unexploded rocket in his water pump well since April. At first he was scared, he said. But this is the only place where he can collect water. “So I got used to it,” he said.

This rocket was one of the least of his worries. “There were planes dropping bombs. It’s a good thing I survived every second,” he said.

He built a wood stove to heat his home and has since been collecting leftover wood at former Russian outposts, carrying huge logs on the back of his motorcycle. Without electricity or gas, wood will help with cooking and staying warm as the weather gets colder in the coming months.

On Friday, a cold rainstorm began several hours after the start. The soil excavated from the graves began to turn into clay. The rain covered the plastic body bags and the signs on the side began to run.

Workers pause to put on ponchos – then get back to work. More bodies were yet to be found.

Whitney Schefte and Sirhi Makailiantes contributed to this report.

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