Isium came under heavy Russian artillery attacks in April. The city, located near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important center of the invading army during the five months of occupation. Ukrainian forces retook control of the city on Saturday, dealing a strategic blow to Russia’s military offensive in the east.
When CNN arrived at the mass burial site on Friday afternoon, officials were transporting body bags, including one that appeared to be carrying something very small, in a refrigerated truck.
Most of the graves at the burial site are single graves, with wooden crosses placed on top of the earthen mounds. Some of them have names and numbers written on them. One was rising to 398. The other was named after an 82-year-old man. An official at the site told CNN that investigations should determine when these people died.
In the woods is what appeared to be a former military post, with tank positions dug deep into the ground.
A policeman at the scene told CNN that the place was a mass grave where 17 bodies were found.
“These are other civilian and military bodies along the way,” Igor Garmash, the site investigator, said of the exact part of the site he was examining, pointing to a nearby site.
“More than 20 bodies have been examined and sent for further investigation,” he told CNN.
The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves found in Izyum were “fresh” and that the bodies buried there were “mostly civilians”.
“There is a whole family next to me … this is a young family … the father was born in 1988, the wife” was born in 1991, their little daughter was born in 2016.
He said local residents told investigators that the family had died in a Russian airstrike.
“We also saw here a mass burial of soldiers from the Ukrainian army. The way they were buried – you will see evidence that their hands were tied, they were killed at close range,” Lubinets said.
An Izium resident who lives across the street from the mass burial site told CNN that the Russians first hit a nearby cemetery in the city with an airstrike and then moved in.
“They brought their own machines. They dug some trenches for their cars. We just heard how they destroyed the forest,” Nadezhda Kalinichenko told CNN.
She said she tried not to go out during the time the city was under Russian occupation because she was too scared.
“When they left, I don’t know if there was a fight or not,” she said. “We just heard a lot of heavy trucks one night a week.”
‘Brutal bloody horror’
During his speech on Thursday, Zelensky said that Russia must be held accountable for the deaths there and in other cities where large numbers of bodies were found.
“The scale of the crimes committed by the invaders in Izyum is enormous. This is a bloody, barbaric terrorism,” said the governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Sinihopov.
Sinihopov said that “450 bodies of civilians with traces of violent death and torture were buried in a forest belt. It’s hard to imagine something like this in the 21st century, but now it is a tragic reality in Iseum.”
Among the bodies exhumed on Friday, “99 per cent showed signs of violent death,” Sinihopov said.
“There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and a person is buried with a rope around his neck. It is clear that these people were tortured and executed. There are also children among those buried,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ole Kotenko, Ukraine’s Commissioner for Missing Persons, said in a Telegram post that searches for the remains of “fallen heroes” are being conducted with caution throughout the region.
“The biggest problem is that some areas are still mined. Despite this, we continue to work, because we have to bring every hero home so that families can honor the memory of the soldiers who died for Ukraine in a dignified way as soon as possible,” Kotenko said.
Zelensky visited Izyum on Wednesday and told reporters he was “shocked” by the number of “destroyed buildings” and “dead people” left in the wake of the Russian occupation.
In his Friday evening address, Zelensky said that exhumations at the mass burial site were continuing and that “it is still too early to speak about the total number of people buried there.”
He added that investigations are underway in all regions of the country that have been recaptured from Russian forces, and that a number of civilians, including foreigners, who were held in occupied cities and towns, were found alive.
He said that among the rescued foreigners were seven Sri Lankan students. They were studying at the medical college in Kobyansk but in March Russian soldiers were captured and held in a basement. “Only now, after the liberation of the Kharkiv region, have these people been rescued and provided with appropriate medical care,” Zelensky said.
A UN source told CNN that a team from the UN human rights monitoring agency – OCHR – will go to Izium and surrounding areas as soon as possible.
The source said that the war crimes investigation team may follow up after that. Their exact destination is still unclear at this time.
Moscow was using Izyum as a staging post for attacks south into the Donetsk and Kobyansk region, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) north of Izyum, and as a railroad hub to resupply its forces.
Zelensky also thanked foreign governments for sending investigators and prosecutors to investigate alleged human rights violations by the occupying forces in Ukraine, adding that all occupied areas would eventually return.
Ukrainian forces launched a continuous military offensive, especially in the northeastern and southern regions of the country.
Zelensky said Tuesday that 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of land has now been liberated by Ukrainian forces so far this month, with nearly half of the area still undergoing “stabilization” measures.