Alleged War Crimes: The Dead of Izyum

After the discovery of hundreds of graves in Izyum in the Kharkiv region, investigators accuse the Russian occupiers of war crimes. Residents tell of torture.

Men in white overalls and protective masks recover a body

Rescue workers exhume the body of a civilian Photo: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/dpa

ISJUM taz | "Most of the people from my house, former neighbors, are lying here," says 33-year-old Serhiy Shtanko, who in the forest near Isjum stands in front of the endless rows of graves. He lived in a five-storey building near the Izyum pedestrian bridge.

This apartment building was destroyed by Russian fighter jets at 9am on March 9 during an attempt to storm the Ukrainian city.

Serhiy recalls that most of his neighbors were sitting in a basement that was hit by a shell. “People were buried in the basement. According to official information, 46 of them have now been identified, seven not yet. It is not known how many people are still in the cellar, because the bodies were only started to be removed a month later," says Serhij.

Miraculously, he survived. During the shelling, he had stayed with his ailing mother in her ground floor apartment. "After the grenade hit, I fell into the basement, along with bricks and a cupboard. I was able to free myself and pull out my mother, who was bedridden at the time. Those who had been under the middle part of the house died. Six people who had been sitting on the edge of the basement survived,” says Serhiy.

"After a few minutes you lose consciousness"

Another resident of Izyum named Maxim also miraculously survived. The 50-year-old was rescued by members of the Ukrainian armed forces as they liberated the city from Russian occupation on September 8.

Maxim was accused on September 3 based on ordinary paper maps of the areas Kharkiv and Donetsk, who were found in his apartment, and thus helped the Ukrainian artillery in their attacks. So he was taken to the basement of a former police station.

The occupiers, Maxim said, had great respect for criminals, but tortured members of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) in Donbass, made up of members of the Ukrainian army deployed against the pro-Russian separatists.

"I had only opened the garden gate when they immediately yelled: 'To the wall! Hands on the wall!'. I was tied up and taken away. They took me to the former police station. There were cells. Criminals sat on the ground floor, but all, let's say, politicians or people they associated with the war were in the basement, so to speak, among the criminals,” Maxim recalls.

He says that the Russian occupiers would have liked to torture Ukrainians with electric shocks. “There was this torture with electricity. They tie you up with handcuffs, here you can still see the traces of it. Then they put you on a chair and apply electrodes. There is a special device called 'Tapik'. With every electric shock you start to tremble. I was also tied by the legs. I fell and had abrasions all over. It's quite a pain. After a few minutes you lose consciousness. I think you can do this for about 15 to 20 minutes. Afterwards I asked how long I had been unconscious. They said about 40 minutes.”

Interrogation and torture with bags over their heads

Maxim shows the scrapes and scars on his wrists and feet. He doesn't know exactly where exactly they tortured him, because he was always brought to the "interrogations" with a sack over his head. They always took place in dark rooms and the "investigators" themselves wore headlamps so that their faces could not be seen.

“They looked for everyone who supported the Ukrainian resistance in any way. They took an interest in those who were pro-Ukrainian, whether they were members of the territorial defense or the ATO. I was there for a week. On September 3rd they locked me up, on September 8th we were released. We owe that to our army,” says Maxim.

He is only five meters away from a mass grave. Here on September 15, investigators from Kharkiv found buried army personnel who had died just before and during the spring occupation of the city.

445 buried civilians

According to Oleksandr Filtshakov, head of the Kharkiv region prosecutor's office, 445 buried civilians and a mass grave with 17 bodies of Ukrainian soldiers have already been found in the Izyum forest. Two bracelets in the national colors of Ukraine can still be seen on the wrists of a killed soldier.

"In the first grave we opened, we found a body with a rope around its neck. A corpse with signs of a violent death,” he says.

At least one exhumed soldier had his hands tied. Filchakov adds that the people they have now exhumed died between March and May this year. The causes of death are rocket or artillery fire, murder, air raids.

The graves had only been discovered the day before, and an investigation under Article 438, paragraph 2 of the Criminal Code (“violation of the laws and customs of war”) was initiated.

Evidence for a trial in The Hague

The head of the investigative department of the State Police of Ukraine in the Kharkiv region Serhiy Bolvinov adds that the investigations into the graves only began on September 16. Around 200 investigators, criminalists, coroners, doctors and public prosecutors work here.

“We have identified the people involved in the burials and recovered registration documents showing that 445 bodies were buried in this area. There is a list kept by those who buried the people. Behind each number is the first and last name and also the date of the burial. We have already been able to identify some of the exhumed bodies,” explains Bolvinov.

He is convinced “that every normal person understands that this is about war crimes the racists (Ukrainian neologism for “Russian fascists”; Editor's note) acts on the Ukrainian population.”

“This is the largest burial ground of civilians who died during the occupation of the Kharkiv region. But there is information about other such places that we are currently investigating," says a police officer. And he adds that since the beginning of the war, around 1,200 civilians have died in the region as a result of Russian attacks, including 54 children.

Ukrainian law enforcement authorities believe that all materials created here can later serve as evidence in a lawsuit before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

From Russian Gaby Coldewey

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