Izium came under heavy Russian artillery attack in April. The city, located near the border between Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important hub for military invaders during five months of occupation. Ukrainian forces retook control of the city on Saturday, dealing a strategic blow to the Russian military assault from the east.
When CNN arrived at the mass burial site on Friday afternoon, officials were transporting body bags, including one that appeared to contain something very small, in a refrigerated truck.
Most of the graves at the burial site are individual graves, with wooden crosses placed at the top of the earthen mounds. Some with names and numbers handwritten on them. One had a number as high as 398. Another bore the name of an 82-year-old man. A site official told CNN that investigations should determine when these people died.
Further down the forest is what appeared to be an old military position, with tank positions dug deep into the ground.
A police officer at the scene told CNN the location was a mass grave where 17 bodies were found.
“Here are civilian bodies and military bodies further away,” Igor Garmash, an investigator at the scene, said of the specific part of the site he was examining, pointing to a spot nearby.
“Over 20 bodies have been examined and sent for further investigation,” he told CNN.
Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves discovered in Izium were “fresh” and the corpses buried there were “mostly civilians”.
Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said in a video statement from the site that “there is a whole family right next to me… It’s a young family… The father was born in 1988, the wife was born in 1991, their baby girl was born in 2016.”
He said local residents told investigators the family died in a Russian airstrike.
“We also saw a mass burial here of servicemen from the Ukrainian army. The way they were buried — you’ll see evidence that their hands were tied, they were killed at close range,” Lubinets said.
An Izium resident living across from the mass burial site told CNN that the Russians first hit a cemetery in the nearby town with an airstrike and then moved in.
“They brought their special machines. They dug trenches for their vehicles. We only heard how they were destroying the forest,” Nadezhda Kalinichenko told CNN.
She said she tried not to go out while the city was under Russian occupation because she was too scared.
“When they left, I don’t know if there was fighting or not. We just heard a lot of heavy trucks one night a week ago,” she said.
“Bloody Brutal Terror”
Zelensky said in his remarks on Thursday that Russia should be held responsible for the deaths there and in other cities where large numbers of bodies were found.
Kharkiv region governor Oleh Syniehubov said “the scale of the crimes committed by the invaders in Izium is enormous. It is bloody and brutal terror.”
Syniehubov said that “450 bodies of civilians bearing traces of violent death and torture were buried in a forest belt. It’s hard to imagine something like this in the 21st century, but now it’s a tragic reality in Izium “.
Syniehubov said that of the bodies exhumed on Friday, “99% showed signs of violent death.”
“There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs, and one person is buried with a rope around their neck. Obviously, these people were tortured and executed. There are also children among those buried,” he said. he declared.
Meanwhile Oleh Kotenko, Ukraine’s Commissioner for Missing Persons, said in a Telegram post that search operations for the remains of “fallen heroes” were proceeding cautiously across the region.
“The biggest problem is that some areas are still mined. Despite this, we continue to work, because we must bring each hero home so that the families can honor the memory of the soldiers who died for Ukraine with dignity as soon as possible. said Kotenko.
Zelensky visited Izium on Wednesday and told reporters he was “shocked” by the number of “buildings destroyed” and “people killed” as a result of the Russian occupation.
In his Friday night address, Zelensky said the exhumation of bodies at the mass burial site was continuing and it was still “too early to talk about the total number of people buried there. “.
He added that investigations were underway in all areas of the country that had been recaptured from Russian forces and that a number of civilians, including foreigners, who had been held captive in occupied towns and villages had been found. living.
Among the rescued foreigners were seven students from Sri Lanka, he said. They were studying at the Kupyansk Medical College but were captured by Russian soldiers in March and held in a basement. “Only now, after the liberation of the Kharkiv region, have these people been rescued and given proper medical care,” Zelensky said.
A United Nations source told CNN that a team from the UN’s human rights monitoring agency – OCHR – will travel to Izium and the surrounding area as soon as possible.
The War Crimes Investigation Team could follow after that, the source said. Their precise destination remains unclear at this time.
Moscow was using Izium as a launching pad for southward attacks in the Donetsk and Kupyansk region, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) north of Izium, and as a rail hub to resupply its forces.
Zelensky also thanked foreign governments for sending investigators and prosecutors to investigate alleged human rights abuses by occupying forces in Ukraine, adding that all occupied areas would eventually return.
Ukrainian forces conducted a sustained military offensive, particularly in the northeastern and southern regions of the country.
Zelensky said on Tuesday that 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of territory had now been liberated by Ukrainian forces so far this month, with around half of the area still under ” stabilization”.