Simple wooden crosses with numbers mark graves in Pishchanske cemetery on Shakespeare Street in Izyum’s outskirts, where Russians buried most of the residents who died during the occupation.
Simple wooden crosses with numbers mark graves in Pishchanske cemetery on Shakespeare Street in Izyum’s outskirts, where Russians buried most of the residents who died during the occupation. © Danil Pavlov
Employees of Ukraine’s state emergency service carry a body bag in the pine forest in the outskirts of the retaken town of Izyum. Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass burial site with hundreds of graves.
Employees of Ukraine’s state emergency service carry a body bag in the pine forest in the outskirts of the retaken town of Izyum. Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass burial site with hundreds of graves. © Danil Pavlov
Protected by head-to-toe suits and rubber gloves, workers recover the remains of the victims. They carefully collect and classify all possible objects, which could help to identify those buried in unmarked graves.
Protected by head-to-toe suits and rubber gloves, workers recover the remains of the victims. They carefully collect and classify all possible objects, which could help to identify those buried in unmarked graves. © Danil Pavlov
An investigator examines an exhumed body. As of November, 447 bodies had been found, of both military personnel and civilians, including children. On November 28, DNA analysis identified the body of Volodymyr Vakulenko, a young poet and writer, who kept a diary about Russian occupation and hid it under a cherry tree in his garden.
An investigator examines an exhumed body. As of November, 447 bodies had been found, of both military personnel and civilians, including children. On November 28, DNA analysis identified the body of Volodymyr Vakulenko, a young poet and writer, who kept a diary about Russian occupation and hid it under a cherry tree in his garden. © Danil Pavlov
A black bag containing an exhumed body from the mass grave in Izyum reads 344 “Unknown man”.
A black bag containing an exhumed body from the mass grave in Izyum reads 344 “Unknown man”. © Danil Pavlov
Police officers work in a tent near the mass burial site.
Police officers work in a tent near the mass burial site. © Danil Pavlov
A refrigerated truck transports exhumed bodies from Izyum’s mass grave site.
A refrigerated truck transports exhumed bodies from Izyum’s mass grave site. © Danil Pavlov
Priest Yuriy Potykun conducts a memorial service at the mass burial site in the forest on the outskirts of Izyum.
Priest Yuriy Potykun conducts a memorial service at the mass burial site in the forest on the outskirts of Izyum. © Danil Pavlov
Viktor Sytnyk, 64, holds the death certificate of his mother Natalia who died on May 21. After a rocket hit their house, she was rushed to the local hospital and underwent surgery, but died following a traumatic shock.
Viktor Sytnyk, 64, holds the death certificate of his mother Natalia who died on May 21. After a rocket hit their house, she was rushed to the local hospital and underwent surgery, but died following a traumatic shock. © Danil Pavlov
After detailing the circumstances of how his mother died to the prosecutor, Viktor Sytnyk signs a statement giving his consent to provide DNA samples and process personal data.
After detailing the circumstances of how his mother died to the prosecutor, Viktor Sytnyk signs a statement giving his consent to provide DNA samples and process personal data. © Danil Pavlov
Prosecutor Ivan Likhovyn sorts Viktor Sytnyk’s DNA samples. Cotton swabs are rubbed inside his cheek, packed in an envelope and sent for forensic analysis.
Prosecutor Ivan Likhovyn sorts Viktor Sytnyk’s DNA samples. Cotton swabs are rubbed inside his cheek, packed in an envelope and sent for forensic analysis. © Danil Pavlov
Prosecutor Ivan Likhovyn packs Viktor Sytnyk's DNA samples in an envelope. The sample will be added to the database with those collected from exhumed bodies in the mass grave to find a match.
Prosecutor Ivan Likhovyn packs Viktor Sytnyk's DNA samples in an envelope. The sample will be added to the database with those collected from exhumed bodies in the mass grave to find a match. © Danil Pavlov
The investigator records the details of the death of Victor Sytnyk's mother. By the time Viktor had arranged the funeral and returned to the morgue, his mother’s body was gone. He was told that a team organised by the occupation authorities had already taken it to the cemetery.
The investigator records the details of the death of Victor Sytnyk's mother. By the time Viktor had arranged the funeral and returned to the morgue, his mother’s body was gone. He was told that a team organised by the occupation authorities had already taken it to the cemetery. © Danil Pavlov
A woman sits with a prosecutor in Izyum’s makeshift police station in a former shopping centre. Residents who are trying to locate the bodies of their beloved queue to give testimonies and provide DNA samples.
A woman sits with a prosecutor in Izyum’s makeshift police station in a former shopping centre. Residents who are trying to locate the bodies of their beloved queue to give testimonies and provide DNA samples. © Danil Pavlov
A woman tries to connect a broken phone to a prosecutor's computer to show a copy of her dead mother's passport.
A woman tries to connect a broken phone to a prosecutor's computer to show a copy of her dead mother's passport. © Danil Pavlov
Viktor Sytnykin in the yard of his house. He is clinging on to the hope that the body of his 90-year-old mother Natalia will be identified. "I don't believe [the Russians] will be punished, but I want my mother to have at least a grave," the former forest ranger said.
Viktor Sytnykin in the yard of his house. He is clinging on to the hope that the body of his 90-year-old mother Natalia will be identified. "I don't believe [the Russians] will be punished, but I want my mother to have at least a grave," the former forest ranger said. © Danil Pavlov
Viktor Sytnyk near his house in Izyum. On May 21, a rocket fell in their yard, shattering the window in his mother Natalia’s room. She died from her injuries.
Viktor Sytnyk near his house in Izyum. On May 21, a rocket fell in their yard, shattering the window in his mother Natalia’s room. She died from her injuries. © Danil Pavlov
Viktor Sytnyk feeds cats in the kitchen of his house.
Viktor Sytnyk feeds cats in the kitchen of his house. © Danil Pavlov
Viktor Sytnyk shows a pillow cut by shrapnel, with which he covered his face to walk into his mother’s room after a rocket fell in their yard on May 21.
Viktor Sytnyk shows a pillow cut by shrapnel, with which he covered his face to walk into his mother’s room after a rocket fell in their yard on May 21. © Danil Pavlov
Local residents take all available wood from a destroyed school to use as firewood. There is no heating in the town, and electricity is limited to the bare minimum.
Local residents take all available wood from a destroyed school to use as firewood. There is no heating in the town, and electricity is limited to the bare minimum. © Danil Pavlov
A woman walks in front of the skeleton of a building in central Izyum. Hardly a building in the town is left undamaged.
A woman walks in front of the skeleton of a building in central Izyum. Hardly a building in the town is left undamaged. © Danil Pavlov
Ukrainian servicemen at the checkpoint at the entrance of Izyum. Russian troops retreated on September 10, six months after occupying the town in the Kharkiv region.
Ukrainian servicemen at the checkpoint at the entrance of Izyum. Russian troops retreated on September 10, six months after occupying the town in the Kharkiv region. © Danil Pavlov
What remains of the town’s bus station.
What remains of the town’s bus station. © Danil Pavlov
A chair with the Ukrainian flag sits in front of the heavily damaged building of Izyum’s district court.
A chair with the Ukrainian flag sits in front of the heavily damaged building of Izyum’s district court. © Danil Pavlov

Ukraine: “I Want My Mother to Have a Grave”

Painful wait for Izyum residents as war crimes investigators collect evidence to identify the dead.

Tuesday, 29 November, 2022

Izyum is slowly coming back to life, but six months of Russian occupation have left profound scars in the town in the eastern Kharkiv region. 

Law enforcement officers are unearthing a mass burial site in a pine forest on the outskirts of town. A total of 447 graves have been identified. 

According to the police and the Kharkiv regional military administration, most of the exhumed bodies so far bear signs of violent death, and 30 of them have marks of torture.

As workers protected by head-to-toe suits and rubber gloves dig in the forest, residents queue outside the local police station. Mobile investigation teams from the prosecutor general’s office gather information to help locals find their loved ones. 

A DNA sample is taken from each exhumed body and matched with that of local residents before the body can be retrieved from the morgue and receive a proper burial. 

In the centre, hardly a building is left undamaged. As there is no heating, Ukraine’s state emergency service allowed residents to dismantle a shelled school for firewood: the desks will keep people warm as the harsh winter bites. Residents stand in long, silent queues waiting for food and hot meals handed out by volunteers. 

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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