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Ukraine War: Mass grave in the Izyum Forest

The graves of about 450 people were found in a forest near the city of Izyum in the Kharkiv region. / Izyum Forest

Izyum Forest: Now they are to be identified and their cause of death determined. Forensic scientists exhume the bodies.

He’s very careful when examining the bodies. Behind the red and white police cordon, a forensic scientist in a white protective suit is kneeling on the soft forest floor and carefully rolling a dead man onto his side.

Only recently exhumed, it lies narrow and somehow unprotected in a large white plastic bag. The crooked limbs are unmistakably stuck in the modern remains of a Ukrainian army uniform.

The dead man has a rope around his neck and was strangled, according to authorities. He is one of 17 Ukrainian soldiers from the only mass grave that has just been found in the Izyum forest, says the head of the Kharkiv region’s military administration Oleg Sinegubov:

“When we’re talking about evidence of torture, I can say this one was found with a rope around its neck and several others with their hands tied behind their backs. We’re still investigating, but I think 99 percent of people won’t died of natural causes. Everything is properly investigated and investigated – but this indicates that the world needs to recognize that there is a genocide against the people of Ukraine taking place.”

Izyum Forest: Pungent smell of corpses

At least 445 other people lie in individual graves here in the forest of Isjum. Ten investigative teams are on site, guarded by police and soldiers. Investigators dig more graves and carefully lift out the wrapped bodies.

A pungent stench of corpses hangs in the air and many wear masks over their mouths. Sergey also came from Izyum, which had been occupied for almost six months. He looks terribly tired, as do many in the city.

“I knew it was here somewhere in the forest and I’m here for the first time since the liberation. I think my neighbor from the third floor and his family are here – seven people,” says Sergei.

Buried with local undertakers

People in the Izyum forest were killed between March and May, mostly by Russian bombers and artillery fire, says Kharkov region police chief investigator Sergey Bolvinov.

Grave in Izyum Forest
Grave in Izyum Forest

During the Russian occupation, residents of Izyum buried the dead together with local undertakers, according to information from the Attorney General’s Office under pressure from the occupiers. These townspeople are important witnesses and they meticulously listed a lot of data in a thick, checkered notebook that chief investigator Bolvinov brought with him into the forest.

“People have created this log book and here they can see the family name and the date of the burial. There is also a number on the wooden crosses of the graves, but not always the name. Sometimes it also says ‘unidentified’,” says Bolvinov.

Izyum Forest / More graves possible

Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin believes that it is quite possible that more such graves will be found in the liberated areas. He came to Isjum at the beginning of the exhumation and travels a lot in the liberated areas.

“A few days ago I was also in Balaklija, where people were tortured. We are currently investigating all the places where the Russian military, the FSB secret service and others were. We have information about the beating and torturing of civilians in these places,” says Kostin.

First investigation completed

The first examination of the corpse from the mass grave with Ukrainian soldiers has been completed and the forensic scientist in the white protective suit zips up the large plastic bag over the corpse.

“Is that number seven?” asks the investigator, who takes notes of everything the forensic scientist says. “I think that was number eight,” the forensic scientist replies matter-of-factly and counts the row of corpses. Just as carefully as before, he examines the next corpse.

First results in a month

After their exhumation, the dead are taken from the Izyum forest to Kharkiv, where they are further examined in detail. The first results could be available in a month. The relatives of those who have not yet been identified should also be found if possible.

So Sergej will only find out later whether his neighbors are really among the dead in the forest. “I don’t know where all these feelings end, this emptiness, this insecurity. But at least I’m not afraid anymore,” says Sergej.

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