Ukraine claims to have uncovered a mass grave of more than 440 people in Izyum, a city in the northeastern region of Kharkiv recaptured in a lightning counteroffensive last week, calling the discovery further evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces.
The burial site, which officials believe contains the bodies mostly of civilians but also soldiers, adds to the widely documented evidence of mass executions by Russian forces since Moscow launched its invasion nearly seven months ago. It includes the discovery of 422 civilian bodies in Bucha after Russia retreated from the town near Kyiv in March.
“Today, the world must see what the Russian army left behind. More than 400 graves are in the forest near Izyum. We still don’t know exactly how many bodies are there,” Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday, adding that many bodies showed signs of torture. “The world must act. Russia must be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian officials are gathering evidence at the site, where scores of wooden crosses stand above graves, each containing multiple bodies. The UN’s human rights office said on Friday that it planned to send a delegation to the site.
“This is the genocide of the Ukrainian people!,” Oleg Synegubov, governor of Kharkiv region, said on Friday.
“Among the bodies that were exhumed today, 99 per cent showed signs of violent death. There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs, and one person is buried with a rope around his neck. Obviously, these people were tortured and executed. There are also children among the buried,” he added in a post on his Facebook page.
Zelenskyy pledged to hold Russia accountable for the alleged crimes. Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians despite mounting evidence of mass executions and indiscriminate shelling of civilian buildings in cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for Russian president Vladimir Putin, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the discovery of the mass grave.
“Russia leaves only death and suffering. You won’t run away. You won’t hide. Retribution will be justly dreadful. For every Ukrainian, for every tortured soul,” Zelenskyy said.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the reports: “It’s horrifying, it’s repugnant.” He added that the discoveries were examples of Russia’s brutality in its prosecution of the war and that the US would continue to support efforts to document potential Russian war crimes.
On Zelenskyy’s repeated calls for the US to declare Russia a state sponsor of terror, Kirby said US president Joe Biden continued to oppose doing so.
“We think there are better alternatives to holding Russia accountable and to increase the costs and consequences,” he said. Declaring Russia a state sponsor of terror could hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid, jeopordize the deal to ship grain from Black Sea ports and eventually limit Zelenskyy’s flexibility at the negotiating table, said Kirby.
Anton Gerashchenko, a top adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry who visited Izyum this week, told the Financial Times that residents who are now giving testimony were forced by Russian forces to dig the graves and bury the victims. In doing so, the residents recorded 446 victims by making marks for each one on the crosses. Authorities are continuing work to exhume the bodies.
“The bodies were buried without being named . . . there are mass graves under each cross,” he said.
Gerashchenko said some of the bodies are likely to be Ukrainian troops who tried to defend Izyum as the Russians stormed the city early in the invasion. After Ukraine confirmed its capture in early April, the city became a key staging post in Russia’s attempt to seize all of the Donbas region.
“Each city they occupy is likely to [uncover] another Bucha,” Gerashchenko said.
He added that Ukraine welcomed international monitoring and investigation teams just as it had for war crime probes in Bucha and other areas from which Russian forces retreated after their failed attempt to capture Kyiv and surrounding areas.
Gerashchenko cautioned that Izyum, located “just 15km from the Donbas front lines”, remains dangerous and within striking range of Russian artillery. Kupyansk, a railway hub north of Izyum, and other areas in the thousands of square kilometres of retaken territory in the Kharkiv region, have been repeatedly hit by Russian strikes.
Dmytro Lubinets, human rights ombudsman in Ukraine’s parliament, estimated that the total number of citizens tortured and killed throughout the Kharkiv region under Russia’s occupation exceeded 1,000.
“If we are talking about the liberated territories of the Kharkiv region in general, then it will be more than a thousand citizens of Ukraine, in particular civilians,” Interfax-Ukraine quoted Lubinets as saying during a briefing on Friday.
As evidence was being gathered at Izyum, Russia for a third consecutive day conducted missile strikes on a dam in the central city of Kryviy Rih, Zelenskyy’s hometown. Ukrainian officials describe the attacks as a “terrorist act” intended to cause mass flooding of water from a reservoir along the Inhulets river. Flooding of the river threatens to cut supply lines for Ukrainian troops downstream who are advancing on Russian forces in the southern Kherson region.
Explosions at buildings in the Russian-occupied cities of Kherson and Luhansk in the far east of Ukraine reportedly killed local supporters of the Russians. Ukrainian officials have not taken responsibility for the Kherson incident but flatly denied involvement in the Luhansk explosion.