At least 440 “unmarked” graves have been found in the city in recent days, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. The country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday that some of the bodies found in Izium showed “signs of torture” and blamed Russia for what he called “cruelty and terrorism”.
Izium faced intense Russian artillery attacks in April. The city, which lies near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became a key hub for the invading military during the five-month occupation. Ukrainian forces regained 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 Friday afternoon, officers were transporting body bags, including one that appeared to contain something very small, into a refrigerated truck.
Most of the graves at the burial ground are solitary, with wooden crosses placed at the top of the mounds. Some with handwritten names and numbers. One was numbered 398. Another bore the name of an 82-year-old man. A local official told CNN the investigation needed to determine when these people died.
Further down in the forest is a former military position with tank positions dug deep into the ground.
A police officer at the scene told CNN that the site is a mass grave where 17 bodies were found.
“There are civilian and military bodies ahead here,” Igor Garmash, a crime scene investigator, said of the particular part of the site he was examining, pointing to a location nearby.
“Over 20 bodies were examined and sent for further examination,” he told CNN.
Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves discovered at Izium were “fresh” and that the bodies buried there were “mostly civilians”.
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said in a video statement released by the website that “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 born.”
He said locals told investigators the family died in a Russian airstrike.
“We also saw a mass burial of Ukrainian army soldiers here. The way they were buried — you will see evidence that their hands were tied, they were killed at close range,” Lubinets said.
A resident of Izium, who lives across from the mass gravesite, told CNN the Russians first hit a nearby city cemetery with an airstrike and then moved in.
“They brought their special machines. They dug some trenches for their vehicles. We only 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 any fighting or not. We heard a lot of heavy trucks at night just a week ago,” she said.
“Bloody Brutal Terror”
In his speech on Thursday, Zelenskyy said Russia must be held accountable for there and other cities where large numbers of bodies were found.
“Bucha, Mariupol and now, alas, Izium … Russia leaves death everywhere. And must be responsible for it. The world really needs to blame Russia for this war. We will do everything for it,” he added.
Kharkiv Region Governor Oleh Syniehubov said that “the scale of the crimes committed by the invaders in Izium is enormous.
Syniehubov said that “450 bodies of civilians with traces of violent death and torture were buried in a forest belt. It’s hard to imagine something like that in the 21st century, but now it’s a tragic reality in Izium.”
Syniehubov said that among the bodies exhumed on Friday, “99 percent showed signs of a violent death.”
“There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and one person is buried with a rope around his neck. Obviously these people were tortured and executed. There are also children among those buried,” he said.
Meanwhile, Oleh Kotenko, Ukraine’s missing persons commissioner, said in a Telegram post that searches for the remains of “fallen heroes” are progressing cautiously across the region.
“The biggest problem is that some areas are still mined. Despite this, we continue to work, because we need to bring every hero back home, so that families can honor the memory of the soldiers who died for Ukraine with dignity as soon as possible,” Kotenko said.
Zelenskyy visited Izium on Wednesday and told journalists he was “shocked” by the number of “buildings destroyed” and “people killed” left behind after the Russian occupation.
In his late night address on Friday, Zelenskyy said the exhumation of the bodies at the mass gravesite is continuing and that it is “too early to talk about the total number of people buried there”.
He added that investigations were ongoing in all areas of the country retaken by Russian forces and that a number of civilians, including foreigners, detained in occupied cities and towns had been found alive.
Among the rescued foreigners were seven Sri Lankan students, he said. They studied at the Kupyansk Medical School, but were captured by Russian soldiers in March and held in a basement. “Only now, after the liberation of the Kharkiv region, these people have been rescued and receive proper medical care,” said Zelenskyy.
A United Nations source has told CNN that a team from the United Nations human rights monitor – the OCHR – will travel to Izium and the surrounding areas as soon as possible.
The war crimes investigation team could follow after that, the source said. Their exact destination is currently unclear.
Moscow used Izium as a launch pad for attacks south into the Donetsk and Kupyansk regions, some 48 kilometers (30 mi) north of Izium, and as a railroad hub to resupply its forces.
Zelensky also thanked foreign governments for sending investigators and prosecutors to investigate alleged human rights abuses by occupying forces in Ukraine, adding that all occupied territories would eventually return.
Ukrainian forces are engaged in an ongoing military offensive, particularly in the north-eastern and southern regions of the country.
Zelenskyy said Tuesday that so far this month 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of territory has been liberated from Ukrainian forces, with about half of the area still undergoing “stabilization measures”.