The forest is located on the outskirts of Izium, a pleasant, flat pine forest where the city’s cemetery is located, in this city in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. But even before you enter it, something unusual stands out: clumps of sandy soil form countless dunes between the trees. On the dirt road leading to it are two large trucks parked with the number 200 painted on their sides. The number 200 is military slang for dead bodies.
It is only when you walk along the forest path that the magnitude of the horror becomes clear. Each of the small dunes is an excavated grave: methodically emptied rectangles of various sizes, where human remains had been buried until a few hours earlier.
This is a place of sheer horror, of a mass funeral of more than 400 people who died violently during the Russian occupation in eastern Ukraine. Dozens of bodies have already been discovered and transferred to a makeshift morgue for further examination. But the preliminary conclusions are grim: Most of the corpses show signs of torture.
Forensics have enlisted the help of firefighters to recover the remains. “My job is to exhume the bodies before forensics can determine what is happening to them,” one of them, Andreiy Vladimirovich Sergienko, told UKTN. “We then bag the bodies and transport them to a morgue. I feel terrible. This is a terrible moment in my life and the first such experience in all my five years of service.”
“Psychologically, I think we will need some help in the future,” he added. ‘Because at least it will be etched in our psyche forever. There are no names on the graves, no names, just numbers. 418. 418 people buried, can you imagine?’
Some researchers say they probably need psychological help
Signs of Torture and Execution
Fresh graves are being excavated in the loose soil all around Andreiy. When a body has been successfully mined, diggers and forensics take a moment to pause as a sign of respect for the dead. In a surreal scene, due to the number of bodies discovered, several forensic experts simultaneously give their conclusions, which are written down by police officers. This grim litany reverberates through the forest. The only other sound comes from the flies festering on the bodies, from the clicks of the cameras and from artillery fire as the war rages just a few hundred yards away.
In front of a small group of journalists, an official, dressed in white protective clothing, squats over a body that has just been recovered. He unbuttons his clothes and searches the pockets for something to make it easier to identify.
Then he slowly sums up his preliminary conclusions: “The body is that of a man in his eighties. His hands are tied behind his back, his head covered with a coat. His testicles are crushed, his inner thighs bear traces of torture. received a hard blow to the head, from behind, probably with a sharp object, such as a knife.” More gruesome details emerge, then the expert takes off his gloves and sits on the truck of a collapsed tree, without commenting further on the gruesome discovery.
Most of the bodies are believed to be local residents as well as some soldiers
According to Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors on the ground, most of the dead were local residents. “Some of them could already be identified, but because their deaths occurred about six months ago, other corpses are in such a state of decomposition that it is difficult to draw conclusions,” war crimes prosecutor Volodymyr Lymar told UKTN. “This will require additional UKTN testing, including UKTN comparison with family members. What we can already identify are signs of violent deaths. Some bodies show signs of possible torture.”
Among the bodies found were those of 17 Ukrainian servicemen in a mass grave, their hands tied, and indications that they were all killed at close range.
In light of the atrocities discovered daily in the newly liberated areas, a further 1,000 police officers and first responders have been deployed in the Kharkiv region, tasked with documenting evidence and collecting testimony in the hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. will be brought.
For the Kharkiv region alone, prosecutor Lymar says: “More than 4,000 criminal proceedings have already been opened in relation to war crimes committed by soldiers of the Russian Federation. I will not tell you the exact number because it is constantly evolving: it is increasing. by the minute.”
Ukraine’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has already opened more than 32,000 cases of possible war crimes across Ukraine, and authorities say they are grateful for the foreign aid that comes in the form of international teams of experts and material support to conduct the investigation.