IZIUM, Ukraine – A dreadful, gruesome smell of death now hovers here. It clings to clothes for days. Even after leaving the city, the memory of it lingers for days and haunts the imagination.
At a forest clearing near the edge of this city, that unmistakable smell foretold the dead found buried in graves in Izium, one of the largest towns liberated from Russian occupation by Ukrainian forces in a spectacular counter-offensive earlier this month in the country’s northeast.
Townspeople took Ukrainian soldiers and police to the sea of graves containing the victims of the Kremlin’s aggression since Russian forces besieged Izium in the early spring, pummeling it with merciless shellfire. They then occupied it until abandoning it in a headlong flight as Ukrainian forces advanced on September 9-11.
Serhiy Bolivnov, head of the investigative department of the Kharkiv regional police, said they had found 445 graves marked with individual crosses. Each grave contained at least one body. They seemed to be mostly civilian men, women and children killed by Russian shelling and air attacks as Moscow’s troops fought for control of the city.
However, he said there were also mass graves where excavations had only just begun and revealed what seemed to be the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers, some bearing signs of torture before death.
He pointed to a man’s corpse with hands roped behind his back pulled from a mass grave.
“We view this as evidence of torture. Every examination is recorded on video and you can see that as every corpse is being removed two medical and legal experts are present, as well as a representative of the prosecutor general’s office and Ukrainian war crimes investigators,” Mr. Bolivnov said.
Other corpses had blue and yellow ribbons and bracelets in Ukraine’s national colors around their wrists.
Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, said that one grave contained the body of Serhii Sova, a 36-year-old soldier from Nikopol who was found with a blue and yellow bracelet around his wrist. Mr. Herashchenko said that Mr. Sova’s wife recognized him by the tattoos on his body and the bracelet, which was given to him by his children.
Mr. Bolivnov said the bodies will be taken to morgues in Kharkiv for comprehensive autopsies, and the results of those examinations would be shared with international investigators from the United Nations and other bodies to be used for likely war crimes trials.
Ukrainian members of parliament and the country’s ombudsman for human rights, Dmytro Lubinets, visited the exhumations site. He said that the dead were all victims of Kremlin aggression, whether they had been killed by shelling or execution.
The grisly revelations were a reminder of the atrocities discovered earlier in the Ukrainian towns of Bucha and Irpin, which had been under Russian occupation last spring.
Mr. Lubinets said Ukrainian authorities have reports of additional burial sites containing apparently executed victims in other parts of the newly-liberated areas. Asked how many more he believed would be found, he said “very many.”
Maksym, who only gave his first name, said he had remained in the town as the Russian invaders approached to care for his elderly mother. For most of the occupation, he said he managed to evade contact with the occupiers. But on September 3, Russian soldiers took him to a basement where, along with other prisoners, he said he was repeatedly beaten and tortured with an electrocution device.
Maksym described the instrument as an “apparatus that looked like an old-fashioned telephone with a hand crank which generated an electric shock by turning the handle. The quicker they turned it, the more intense the shock,” he said.
“They carried out the electrocution in cells where the lights had been turned off so it was completely dark and worked by the flashlights on their helmets. They attached electrodes to my hands and my whole body quivered from the electric shocks and pain,” Maksym said.
The interrogators wanted him to name other people that were sympathetic to the Ukrainian government, which he refused to do, he said.
Maksym, 50, said he came to the burial site because he wanted to tell journalists about the Russian’s use of torture.
He showed this correspondent how tightly-fastened handcuffs and leg irons he was forced to wear during his captivity had cut deeply into his flesh.
He was released as Ukrainian forces approached Izium and later returned to the building where was tortured and found the electrocution device had been left behind by his captors in their headlong rush to flee Izium.
Maksym said he handed it over to Ukrainian authorities and hoped it would be used as evidence to show that members of the Russian military committed war crimes in the city.
Victims claiming identical electrocution torture have come forward in other areas in the Kharkiv region, which Russian occupation forces also recently abandoned.
Another person at the burial site was 70-year-old Anatoliy Harahatiy who said he was a professional photographer who had for years been a blogger and posted his work and reports about local news on a YouTube channel.
He said that on May 28 he had been arrested by the Russians after being spotted taking a video through his apartment window in the township of Savyntsi, northwest of Izium.
“I was taken to a prison in the town of Balakliya and held in an underground cell. There were 40 of us and I, myself, saw some 50 other prisoners pass through and we heard people screaming as they were tortured,” said Mr. Harahatiy, adding that he was tortured with the same type of device used on Maksym.
“They wanted me to use my YouTube channel to say that the Ukrainian government were Nazis and it was our forces who were committing atrocities and that the Russians were the good guys and their rule should be welcomed,” he said.
“I didn’t agree to do that, which made them angrier and they beat me more and used electric shocks. But after a few days, they realized I wasn’t going to give in, but they kept me prisoner for 100 days until they suddenly unlocked us and fled themselves last Sunday [September 11].”
“The Russians come here and call us Nazis but it is [Russian President] Vladimir Putin who is behaving exactly as the Nazis. Hitler would be proud of them,” Mr. Harahatiy said.
His release came after a surprise offensive by Ukrainian forces, intended initially to take a modest amount of Russian-occupied territory in the Kharkiv region, but which rapidly gained momentum and turned into a rout for Moscow’s troops.
Ukrainian forces have recaptured large tracts of territory, liberating more than 150,000 of their fellow citizens and pushing some of the occupying forces back to the Russian border they had streamed across as the invasion erupted on February 24.
Izium is an important rail and highway hub and was vital for supplying the Russian forces not only in the Kharkiv region but further south. One of Ukraine’s most important highways runs from Kharkiv to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast.
That is the heart of the eastern front of the war and the Donbas region, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, that Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin has vowed to take. Fierce battles have raged there since the start of the Russian invasion. Moscow had captured most of Luhansk Oblast and was enjoying success in Donetsk Oblast because of its huge superiority in artillery.
However, sophisticated and precise western-provided artillery and rocket systems enabled Ukraine to stem the Russian advances and to launch counterattacks.
The scale of the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast was apparent from the scores of burned-out tanks, their turrets blown off, and other armored and thin-skinned vehicles wrecked along the 75-mile drive from Kharkiv to Izium.
The chaos of the Russian retreat was also evidenced by the huge number of intact but abandoned Russian armored vehicles, trucks, towed artillery and massive quantities of ammunition. Ukrainians said they had even found highly-secret encryption laptops left by fleeing Russians.
Russian vehicles, many which are much more modern than Ukraine’s mostly Soviet-era tanks, are recognizable by the letter “Z” emblazoned on them. Those have been spray-painted over and replaced with a white Ukrainian cross and sent to other areas in the Kharkiv region and in the country’s east and south where Ukrainian forces are attempting to push back their enemy as far as possible before winter freezes the front lines.
Residents of Izium said they believe many of the dead in the forest burial ground were killed when two apartment blocks collapsed after being hit by fierce Russian artillery strikes.
Valentina Ivanivna, 73, said she and her friend Nadezhda lived in an apartment that had itself been blasted by shelling, wounding four residents. They continued to live in the basement.
“We are Ukrainians, so we always have stores of food and jars of pickles,” Ms. Ivanivna said.
“There were terrible battles here with shells flying in every direction. They were using Grad missiles. During the Russian shelling, two multi-story buildings collapsed like houses of cards. Entire families were wiped out. Over the following days, our firemen pulled out around 400 men, women and children,” she recalled.
“When the Russians first entered [Izium], there were endless columns of tanks and armored carriers. They kept saying they were a fraternal nation. Some fraternal nation! We never dreamed an invasion could happen,” she said.
“We tried to have as little contact as possible with the Russian soldiers. They were very young, some only 18, just children. They said they had been told they were going for training and didn’t realize they were being sent to war,” Ms. Ivanivna said.
Her voice brimmed with emotion as she described her feelings on seeing the first Ukrainian soldiers entering Izium.
“We were so happy to see the Russians leave and Izium become Ukrainian again. Many people cried. I did,” she said.
Many residents, including military age men, left the city before the Russians arrived and the town’s pre-war population of some 50,000 plunged to around 12,000, with the elderly a great proportion of those remaining. Presently the town has no gas, electricity or water.
One elderly woman, Yevdovika, whose apartment burned down after the Russian’s shelled it, moved her hand in a wide, circular sweep.
She pointed to the devastation in every direction, a landscape of rubble where buildings, including multi-story apartments, had stood. Amid the devestation, she pointed out the charred skeletons of houses, shops and banks on Izium’s main street.
In a bitter tone she said, “The Russians, what swine. Why did they come here to our Ukraine? They destroyed everything. They said they were here to liberate us. What did they liberate us from? From a pleasant life in our town that was so wonderful a few months ago.”
She said she cried in joy when she saw the first Ukrainian soldiers “They are wonderful, such brave lads. We owe them such a debt. They have given us freedom and life again.”
And tears once more rolled down her cheeks.