Although the wooden crosses are marked with numbers, it’s hard to tell just how many there are by looking at the forest.
Upon liberating the city of Izyum after 5 months of Russian occupation, Ukrainian soldiers made a grim discovery: a mass grave site in the woods just northeast of the city.
The grave site, where at least 450 bodies have been found so far, seems to corroborate locals’ stories of people going missing, being tortured and executed by Russian forces during their time using the city as a launch pad to carry out missile strikes in Ukraine.
The accounts from police and public prosecutors who are exhuming the bodies report that both Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are buried there. Among the dead: a soldier whose hands were tied when he was killed, with only a crucifix around his neck to identify an otherwise badly decomposed body. A civilian with broken arms and a rope around his neck. An entire civilian family: mother, father, children, grandparents.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already sent out a team of investigators to Izyum to gather evidence of war crimes committed by Russia. This won’t be difficult; survivors of Russia’s torture chambers in Izyum tell liberators and the media of what they witnessed —and endured— during those grueling months of occupation.
“They tortured me for 12 days,” said Mykhailo Ivanovych, 67, with his arm in a sling ans scars on his body. Ivanovych was taken to the Izyum police station, where Russian forces detained and abused those they deemed as “saboteurs.”
“They beat me everywhere. They broke my arm. One Russian was holding it and another one beat it with a pipe. They beat me to the point where I didn’t feel anything. They used an electric current on my fingertips – how they burned.”
For those who survived the occupation in Izyum, the pain does not end with the return of the Ukrainian flag in the town squares.
“I feel empty inside. All the tears have gone,” said Serhiy Shtanko, 33, who was at the gravesite seeking news of his missing loved ones.
“My friend was captured because he was in the military in the past,” Tatyana Tevetkov, 32, said. “Maybe [the Russian forces] released him when they retreated, but I don’t see him anywhere,” she said. “Anyone accused of being in the Ukrainian army would be taken. You can see now in the woods what probably happened to them.”
Izyum will go down in history as one of the greatest tragedies of Putin’s invasion. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only one of its kind; mass grave sites in Russian-occupied cities have also been found in Bucha and Irpin in earlier months of the conflict. The magnitude of this loss of human life must be brought to justice on the world stage. We will continue to report on the ICC’s findings following this discovery, and we are keeping the suffering families in mind today and everyday.