mass grave with crosses

Investigators look for answers after Russian forces buried more than 400 bodies in a mass grave in Ukraine

A forest in the city of Izium in northeast Ukraine is home to one of the largest mass graves discovered since the Russian invasion.

The World

One of the largest mass graves discovered since the Russian invasion in Ukraine lies in a wooded area just outside the northeastern city of Izium.

On a recent visit, fog enveloped the tall pine trees surrounding the graves.

The remains have been exhumed and relocated to the local morgue but a faint smell lingered. A few open, empty caskets stuck awkwardly out of the graves. Not far away, a pile of discarded disposable gloves, masks and other personal protective gear was a reminder of the ongoing forensic investigations here.

Since the recapture of Izium by the Ukrainian forces in September, investigators have been trying to identify the remains in this mass grave. Families with missing loved ones are searching for answers.

In some cases, all the victims got was a number: 146. 189. No name, no cause of death, nothing else.

woman filling out paperwork
Yulia Tatarinova, of Izium, Ukraine, fills in forms related to her DNA sample in hopes of finding the body of her husband. Shirin Jaafari/The World

Out of 451 bodies that were discovered, 150 are yet to be identified, according to Oleksandr Filchakov, head of the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office. At least 17 bodies bore evidence of torture, he said, including ropes tied around their necks, hands tied behind their backs and cracked bones.

Liudmyla Vaschana has been searching for her 31-year-old son, Eduard, since March. When the Russian military started its attack on Izium, she said, Eduard joined the volunteer fighters called the Territorial Defense Unit. Vaschana left Izium to care for her other son, 19-year-old ​​Oleh, who had been injured while fighting in another part of the country. He was recovering in Lviv, a city close to the Polish border.

The fighting got intense in Izium, and on March 6, Vaschana lost touch with Eduard. Four days later, she said, the house that his unit was based in was bombed. Other members of the unit told Vaschana that they searched for his body in the rubble but never found it.

discarded equipment in the forest
A pile of discarded personal protective gear used by investigators and exhumers at the mass grave in Izium, Ukraine. Shirin Jaafari/The World

“I just want to find my son,” she said, adding, “That’s the most important thing.”

In September, Vaschana called a hotline set up for missing persons and reported her son missing. But she said so far, no one has gotten back to her.

When The World spoke to Vaschana earlier this month, she was visiting a mobile laboratory to give DNA samples. Technicians swabbed the mouths of visitors, then filled in a form with their personal information.

The lab, set up with the help of the French government, collects DNA from those who have missing relatives. It then runs the samples through a database collected from the remains found in the mass grave in Izium.

people getting DNA collected
Relatives of victims have their DNA samples taken at a mobile laboratory in Izium, Ukraine, set up with the help of the French government. Shirin Jaafari/The World

“We’re asking relatives of Ukrainian soldiers to submit their DNA samples,” Dmytro Chubenko, Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson, told reporters outside the mobile clinic. “We’re constantly finding mass graves of Ukrainian soldiers, we’re examining their bodies and collecting their DNA samples […] to try and identify as many people that were buried here as possible.”

‘We will never forgive them’

There are 7,700 war crimes cases under investigation in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine alone, said Filchakov, from the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office.

A map in his office marked the areas where those investigations are being carried out. Some are off-limits, he said, because they remain under Russian occupation. Others are mined, or are too close to the border where Russian troops are stationed.

“Geographically, we are in an unfavorable position because we are close to the  border with the aggressive country [Russia],” he said.

Besides the arrests, torture and killing of Ukrainians, Filchakov added, the Russian forces have been implementing changes with the goal to erase Ukrainian identity.

man standing outside
Dmytro Leontyev, 41, lost his father on March 20. He said his neighbors buried him in the backyard but then Russian soldiers dug his body up and buried him in the mass grave. Leontyev hasn’t been able to find his father’s body. “He was a good man,” he said. “He was a taxi driver his whole life. He helped everyone and everyone wanted to be his passenger.”Shirin Jaafari 

“We have found documents that were signed by the occupying authorities where they were confiscating Ukrainian school books, and they were introducing Russian school programs,” he said. “In some cases, we found evidence that the Russians were rewriting history. For example, they were saying the famous Ukrainian poet [Taras] Shevchenko was Russian.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin started this war with the excuse to protect the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, Filchakov said.

“My family lives here, my wife, my kids, my parents and overall people in the Kharkiv region are Russian speaking. He [Putin] is directing his army to kill our wives and our children. ​​All I can tell you is that we will never forgive them.”

Documenting war crimes

Beyond Izium, there are major efforts underway to document crimes committed by the Russian forces all over Ukraine.

Truth Hounds started this work in 2014 when Russia took over Crimea.

man in office
Roman Avramenko, executive director of Truth Hounds, at its office in Kyiv, Ukraine. Shirin Jaafari/The World

Earlier this year, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the nongovernmental organization redoubled its efforts to reach affected areas quickly to collect and document as much evidence as possible.

“This expertise that we developed and gained during previous years really helped us to contribute to the justice processes,” said Roman Avramenko, executive director at the Truth Hounds office in Kyiv.

When it comes to building a case, Avramenko explained, time is of the essence.

“Time flies, craters [get] filled […] people will forget details,” he said. “Some buildings have been repaired and restored. The evidence will just go away, in many cases forever, unfortunately.”

Before investigators leave on a trip, they collect as much data as they can. They search for videos, photos and social media posts online that could shed light on what happened. After verifying them, they go to the scene and begin interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence.

Avramenko gave an example of a recent successful investigation. In March, at least 10 people were killed in an attack on people standing in line for bread in the northeast city of Chernihiv. An American was among the victims.

“We were able to prove there were no immediate military targets that potentially could be legal targets for this attack,” he said. “And that the Russian troops used weapons of indiscriminate nature.”

Avramenko and his team are working to bring cases to courts in Ukraine and outside. He suspects the extent of the crimes committed by the Russian forces to be far beyond what they can document and prove in court.

“The Ukrainians have been so dehumanized in the eyes of the regular Russian soldier that they see no difference between killing a cat or killing a child,” he said.

Volodymyr Solohub supported the reporting of this story.

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