More than 400 bodies were found in a mass burial site when Ukrainians took back a town that Russians occupied

By Stephen Kalin

Sept. 28, 2022

The Wall Street Journal

IZYUM, Ukraine–In the early-August heat, Vitaliy Boroviy fished a pair of bloated bodies from the river bisecting this eastern Ukrainian town. From their bound hands, the municipal funeral director surmised that they had been detained, tortured and killed by occupying Russian forces.  Mr. Boroviy arranged their burial as best he could, interring them in a pine forest along with more than 400 others who perished during Russia’s five-month occupation, which Ukrainian forces brought to an end this month.

When that mass burial site was uncovered by Ukrainian authorities on Sept. 15, it was unclear who most of the victims were and how they died. Since then, a picture has emerged from residents of a town subject to escalating torture and killings as Ukrainian forces closed in this summer.

Mr. Boroviy, a lanky and soft-spoken 55-year-old, said he buried so many bodies in Izyum that he ran out of wood to make new coffins and wrapped some of them in blankets. On separate occasions, Russian soldiers ordered him to collect two bodies from wooded areas, where he suspects they were dumped after being tortured.

He buried five more bodies with ropes still tied around their necks, suggesting they had been executed or died by suicide. Other bodies, collected near a bridge over the river and on roads leading out of the town, he said, carried bullet wounds indicating to him they had been shot as they fled.

Exhumation of the mass burial site was completed on Friday, revealing that most of the 436 bodies had signs of violent death including gunshot wounds, broken limbs, bound hands and amputated genitalia, Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Sinegubov said last week.

At least three other burial sites have been found in other liberated cities of Kharkiv, the area encompassing Izyum, according to Mr. Sinegubov.

The signs of violence found in Izyum recall some of the war’s grisliest killings in Bucha and other towns and villages around Kyiv this spring. Those killings occurred as Russian forces attacking the capital were halted and pummeled by Ukrainian defenders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 16 accused Russia of repeating in Izyum what it did in Bucha, where more than 450 bodies were recovered. “We have just begun to learn the full truth about what was happening in the Kharkiv region,” he said.

The Kremlin hasn’t commented on Mr. Zelensky’s allegations. Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, has characterized his comments as lies. The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

In Izyum, which is known as a strawberry-growing hub and had a prewar population of some 46,000, the violence swelled over a lengthy occupation as Ukrainian forces closed in, residents say.

Russian invasion forces seized Izyum in late March and turned it into a hub for its efforts to seize the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Moscow moved troops and armored vehicles into the town as it struck south, seeking to encircle Ukrainian troops to the east. Forensic examiners worked at the mass burial site where more than 400 bodies were found.  Ukrainian investigators who exhumed the site said many of the soldiers’ bodies showed traces of torture.

Russia’s violent capture of Izyum, when it bombarded the town with artillery and airstrikes, killed dozens of civilians, many of whom were left on the street or buried in courtyards and public parks. Mr. Boroviy said volunteers helped him dig them up and carry them across the river to the gravesite, over a footbridge, the only one remaining after the rest were blown up.

The gravesite, just off the main road into Izyum from the north, abuts a formal cemetery named Shakespeare. Hundreds of small mounds of the forest’s sandy soil are marked with wooden crosses bearing numbers and in some cases names and dates of birth and death. All around are trenches dug by the Russians and abandoned ahead of the Ukrainian advance.

Mr. Boroviy, who previously worked at a local school as a night watchman, has been helping bury Izyum’s dead for two decades through a company that sells coffins and gravestones. One of his customers, the municipal funeral service, hired him after another employee struggled to keep track of bodies piling up under Russian occupation. He became its director in May when the previous director left town.  Mr. Boroviy said he wrote down where the bodies were taken from and tried to identify them, but that wasn’t always possible.

Decaying corpses were pulled from the rubble of buildings destroyed in aerial attacks during the Russian takeover, including more than 50 people who had huddled in an underground shelter and an unidentified Ukrainian sharpshooter, according to the funeral services director and residents who lived in a building that collapsed. Later, others killed during the Russian occupation were moved quickly to the morgue rather than left to rot in the streets. Many of these bodies ended up in the mass burial site.  One day, a Russian soldier showed Mr. Boroviy a freshly covered pit at the gravesite and told him: “Seventeen of your soldiers are here.” He made a wooden cross to mark the spot.

The Russians, who had dug trenches and posted tanks in the forest nearby, forbid burial ceremonies. Sometimes, Mr. Boroviy said, he unloaded bodies there but was forced by shelling to return a day or two later to bury them. He estimated the death rate in Izyum during Russia’s occupation was four times as high as usual, even after more than half the population had fled.

As the Ukrainians halted the Russian advance earlier this summer, Izyum became a target for Ukrainian artillery, including high-tech rocket launchers supplied by the U.S., which hammered Russian positions to lay the ground for a rapid offensive this month.

In one strike in late June, Ukrainian forces hit Russian military headquarters at a school in Izyum, killing 17 Russian service members, including a colonel and two majors, wounding more than 20 and destroying many vehicles, Ukrainian soldiers have said, citing their own intelligence.

Russian troops suspected residents of covertly aiding the advancing forces, according to interviews with more than a dozen locals. Soldiers, along with a police force from eastern areas of Ukraine that Russia cleaved from Kyiv’s control in 2014, targeted men with even tangential ties to the Ukrainian military or security forces. They detained people for keeping photos or maps on their phones deemed suspicious. Residents said they stayed out of public sight whenever possible to avoid abuses

As the Ukrainian military closed in on Izyum last month, Mr. Boroviy said he faced mounting threats from jumpy Russian soldiers who believed the movements required by his job were ideal cover for an enemy scout.

Soldiers asked him why he was often going to the edge of town and working in the forest and said they suspected him of coordinating artillery and mortar attacks. He said they thrust their rifle muzzles into his chest and shot the ground between his feet.

On Sept. 3, he said, men wearing the uniform of Russian military police and balaclavas covering their faces pulled up to his home in a white Russian-made jeep. They took him to Izyum’s central police station, where he was held in near total darkness in a dingy concrete cell below ground and interrogated about alleged contacts with the Ukrainian security service.

In a windowless shooting range in the basement of the police station, Mr. Maximov said he was blindfolded and sustained hearing loss in his left ear from severe beatings. He said his tormentors suffocated him with a gas mask and connected wires from a military field telephone to metal cuffs binding his hands and feet, shocking him with electricity that would knock him off his chair.

With him in the cell were four other men, including two former soldiers who had served in Ukrainian forces that sought to reclaim eastern territories from Russian troops and their local allies in 2014.

One of them, Serhiy Kostomarov, said the Russian-installed Ukrainian police took him to the station on Aug. 9 after finding his military papers and medals during a home search.

For two days, he said, they beat his backside so badly that he couldn’t sit, shocked his legs with electricity and placed a plastic bag over his head while beating him in the chest to make him gasp for air. Then they left him in the cell for a week before resuming interrogations and beatings.

On Sept. 9, the eve of the Ukrainian seizure of Izyum, the pro-Russian separatists guarding the prisoners turned visibly nervous. They threatened to toss grenades into the cells in the event of a Russian retreat, said Mr. Maximov.

By dawn, the Ukrainian guards had changed into civilian clothes and opened the cells’ heavy iron doors. “Run away,” Mr. Maximov recalled them telling the prisoners, warning that the Russians would come and kill them.

He and Mr. Kostomarov said they ran out of the police station with others to find the streets of Izyum abandoned and checkpoints unmanned. The Russians had imposed a three-day curfew and then fled, locals said. By midday, the Ukrainians were back in control of the town.  Serhiy Kostomarov said he was beaten and left in a cell.

At the mass gravesite last week, body bags were lined up on the ground as locals trickled into a white tent to give testimony to police investigators about how their loved ones had died.

Mr. Boroviy suspects more graves have yet to be found, containing bodies that the Russians disposed of themselves. “Families come to us and ask where the body is, but we have no bodies,” he said.

Artem Bondar contributed to this article.