Outside a liberated Ukrainian town, detectives search for evidence of war crimes: NPR

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Wooden crosses mark burials at a mass grave site in recently liberated Izium, Ukraine. Some of the graves have a name and date written in thick black marker, others simply have a number scribbled on – unidentified.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Wooden crosses mark burials at a mass grave site in recently liberated Izium, Ukraine. Some of the graves have a name and date written in thick black marker, others simply have a number scribbled on – unidentified.

Claire Harbage/NPR

IZIUM, Ukraine – Rows of handmade wooden crosses stretch out in the woods outside the newly liberated town of Izium in northeastern Ukraine. Each marks an individual grave. Some have a name and date written in thick black marker, others simply have a number scribbled on – unidentified. Many are decorated with plastic flowers or draped in fabric.

A strip of white barricade weaves between the trees, while workers dressed in blue robes and paper masks systematically dig up each grave, one by one, extracting body after body, examining them and then gently placing them in lined white body bags near.

On Friday, Ukrainian investigators gather as they exhume bodies from a mass grave in Izium.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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On Friday, Ukrainian investigators gather as they exhume bodies from a mass grave in Izium.

Claire Harbage/NPR

They are researching the cause of death for each of the approximately 400 bodies expected to be found in this makeshift cemetery, all believed to be civilians killed during the nearly six-month-long Russian occupation of the city. Investigators hope to find and document possible evidence of war crimes, and also be able to identify those buried here without names.

Izium had a population of around 46,000 before the full-scale invasion of Russia was launched in late February. The city was taken on March 1 and quickly became the hub of Russian operations in the region. Residents had little time to flee. Thousands of people ended up living under occupation – which meant constant fighting, no electricity, little access to running water or other resources, and cut off communication with the outside world.

Ukraine’s armed forces have retaken the city as part of their massive counter-offensive launched last week, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says has now reclaimed more than 3,100 square miles of land in the east of the country. Now Ukrainian officials are investigating whether torture was also part of the hardships endured by residents under Russian control.

A collapsed bridge over a river in Izium. The Ukrainian armed forces estimate that 80% of the city is ruined by violence.

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A collapsed bridge over a river in Izium. The Ukrainian armed forces estimate that 80% of the city is ruined by violence.

Claire Harbage/NPR

“We have a huge amount of work to do,” Oleksandr Ilyenkov, the Kharkiv region’s chief war crimes prosecutor, said while standing in front of the graves. “We found bodies with signs of torture – hands tied behind their backs, ropes around their necks.”

NPR witnessed at least one such body with its hands tied behind its back after it was pulled from a grave.

On Friday, Ukrainian investigators exhumed bodies from a mass grave in Izium.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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On Friday, Ukrainian investigators exhumed bodies from a mass grave in Izium.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Ilyenkov pointed out that the tomb consists of clay soil, which has preserved many bodies relatively well, giving him hope that the evidence would also be preserved. He said that in 10 years as a prosecutor he had never seen anything like it.

A short drive away, downtown Izium is almost completely destroyed. Buildings destroyed by bombs, windows blown out, cars overturned and set on fire. The Ukrainian armed forces estimate that 80% of the city is ruined by violence.

But on a recent visit, residents were out – biking, walking, feeding stray cats and dogs.

Signs of destruction can be seen throughout Izium following its liberation from Russian forces.

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Signs of destruction can be seen throughout Izium following its liberation from Russian forces.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Victoria Bondarenko, 58, welcomed us to her fifth-floor apartment, which had been repeatedly hit by shelling. A giant hole in the roof caused water to leak into her building almost daily, she said, and the glass in the windows had been missing for months. A pot of boiled potatoes on a gas stove in the kitchen, but she said there had been no electricity since March. Like other residents, she visited a nearby spring to get water.

Ukrainian officials told him they hoped power would be restored soon, but did not expect the heating to be working by winter.

“I’m at my absolute breaking point,” she said, breaking into tears. “I don’t want to live anymore.”

Victoria Bondarenko stands in her apartment in Izium. “I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. I have no other words for it,” she said.

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Victoria Bondarenko stands in her apartment in Izium. “I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. I have no other words for it,” she said.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Bondarenko described being without any credible information for almost the entire war so far, as all communications were cut off. When the city was liberated, it finally got access to the news and kept catching up on the atrocities that happened in places like Bucha and Mariupol.

“I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. I have no other words for it,” she said.

Back at the grave in the woods, 72-year-old Hryhory Pryhodko watched the examiners do their job. He said his wife was buried at the site, after she was killed in an airstrike while they were walking together. He paid the Russians a large sum of money to allow a burial team to enter the site.

Hryhory Pryhodko said his wife was buried at the site of the mass grave, after she was killed in an airstrike while they were walking together.

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Hryhory Pryhodko said his wife was buried at the site of the mass grave, after she was killed in an airstrike while they were walking together.

Claire Harbage/NPR

While he doesn’t want his wife’s body disturbed, he said he appreciates the work being done, saying the unidentified man should be put to rest.

“When you are born you are given a name, and these people need names when they die,” he said.

He wanted to make sure the world knew his wife’s name: Ludmilla. He said she was the sweetest soul he had ever met.

“If everyone was like her, there would never have been a war like this,” he said, pointing to the graves. And then he left.

Many individual graves at the mass grave site are decorated with plastic flowers or draped in fabric.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Many individual graves at the mass grave site are decorated with plastic flowers or draped in fabric.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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