In the seven months since its beginning, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned out to be the bloodiest conflict on the territory of Europe since the end of the Second World War, with countless cases of atrocities and war crimes of all kinds.
Atrocities include everything from shelling and bombing of civilian targets to abductions, deportations, looting, sexual assault, executions and torture of both military and civilians alike.
This is how it came to be last week and the next news about the slaughter of many civilians after the massacre in Bucha in the spring.
This time, however, it’s Kharkiv Oblast, where Ukrainian authorities said they discovered hundreds of graves in a forest near the town of Izyum left after the retreat of the Russian army. The bodies include at least 17 Ukrainian soldiers found in a mass grave on Friday, and others who were civilians buried in separate graves marked with wooden crosses.
“We found 445 graves in this place alone,” said Alexander Filchakov, chief prosecutor of the Kharkiv region. “Not far from there we also found a mass grave with 17 Ukrainian soldiers. Most of the civilians were buried individually.”
According to the Ukrainians, many of the bodies have clear signs of torture – some have their hands tied behind their backs and their nails pulled out, and others have traces of ropes around their necks. According to local residents, some of the dead were killed in airstrikes.
Some of the grave crosses have names and dates, but most are marked only with numbers. The Guardian quoted the owner of a local funeral home, Tamara Volodymyrovna, who claimed that she was instructed by the occupying Russian forces to write only numbers instead of names and to record both in a diary.
She says the Russian administration has not provided the necessary data to make the correct grave markers.
Of all the bodies Volodymyrovna handled, at least 100 are believed to have died as a result of Russian bombing during the battle for the city in the spring. This includes at least 20 children.
The city itself fell under the control of the Russian army at the end of March, about a month after the start of the offensive. It is a regional center of important strategic importance as an exit point from the Donbass and a transport hub for the entire Kharkiv region, located only 120 kilometers from the capital Kyiv.
Throughout the month of March, heavy clashes took place there with constant artillery fire between the two warring parties and daily battles for almost every street. On April 1, the Ukrainian army confirmed its retreat from Izyum, and according to the mayor Volodymyr Matsokin, 80% of the buildings in it were destroyed at that time.
During the next six months, the city remained occupied by the Russian army, which used it as the main base of its operations in Kharkiv and Donbass, and about a third of the 46,000 population were stranded there.
“It was a total disaster,” says Volodymyrovna, describing how during the heavy bombing, people buried their loved ones where they were, and then had to rebury them when the situation calmed down.
Even then, however, there was no peace for the people.
According to local survivors of the occupation, the Russians had detailed lists of veterans of the 2014 hostilities and their families. Many of these people were systematically searched and taken in an unknown direction.
Officially, Moscow categorically denies any accusations of committing war crimes or atrocities against civilians.
“This is the same scenario as in Bucha. This is a lie and, of course, we will defend the truth in this story,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia has already rejected accusations that its troops committed war crimes in Bucha, outside Kyiv, after evidence emerged of civilians killed while the city was under the control of Russian troops.
Regarding the graves in Izyum, there is an intensified discussion on various Russian channels, where the main thesis is the fact that it is a question of an area with an already existing cemetery, where the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers who were not collected by their own during their retreat in beginning, as well as civilians killed in Ukrainian shelling on Russian-controlled areas.
The arguments are the existence of marked, individual graves, which no one would have bothered to do if they had intended to commit mass murder. According to the Russian version, the graves are not hidden, on the contrary, there are many of them all over Ukraine and they are all marked.
The practice is for all identified corpses to have their names written on the crosses, while those of unclear identity are laid together as part of standard wartime procedure to avoid the spread of contagion.
However, there is little mention of the allegations of clear signs of torture and people buried in unnatural positions. The Russian version here is that it is a staged affair and an attempt to inflate the whole case for propaganda purposes to smear the Russian army.
It is yet to be clear what the fate of those killed in Izyum and the surrounding area is. A UN team from the Office of Human Rights has already been sent to the field to investigate how many of those buried were soldiers and how many civilians, as well as the causes of their deaths.
In any case, the expectation is to find more similar places, considering the intensity of the hostilities and their cruelty.
On Monday, Ukrainian prosecutors announced that a body called a people’s militia had been set up in a village near the Russian border and that local people were being tortured in an underground facility.
“They kept local people in this basement. First they psychologically processed them at the station, they broke their will. Then, in order to extract testimonies from them, the Russian soldiers took them to this basement. They kept them here without food and without medical help”, says Vyacheslav Zadorenko, mayor of Dergachevsky district in Kharkiv region.
Therefore, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky compared the actions of the Russian army to the methods of the Nazis in World War II.