September 22, 2022 1:24 pm
A woman in a dressing gown walks slowly down the street, her arms at her sides, as if she doesn’t know where to go. Another woman pushes a rusty cart in which wooden logs are piled up. Around a truck, a group of people waits in silence for the distribution of a Bible and a sack full of humanitarian aid. After six months of Russian occupation in Izjum, in the eastern part of Ukraine, families and children look blank. Tears fall on someone’s face, without any sobbing. Nobody pays attention to it. Here, after the liberation of the city in mid-September, the dead are more talked about than the living.
In fact, during a mine clearance operation in a pine forest, 445 graves were discovered by chance outside the Shakespeare cemetery (it’s really called that), near the eastern access road to Izjum. Since then, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj and dozens of experts, doctors, magistrates, war crimes specialists, soldiers and journalists have walked the path that crosses the large pines and leads to the burials, simple mounds of earth with a wooden cross. Sometimes the graves bear a name. Much more often just a number.
The images went around the world, transforming Izjum into the “city of the dead”. The Ukrainian head of state immediately demanded that light be shed. All bodies will be autopsied and investigated. But what happened? Who are these dead? Why are they located in that pine forest?
Main burial site
In the center of Izjum, on the ground floor of a building, there is a discreet plaque with a telephone number and a message: “Funeral service and funerary monuments 24 hours a day”. Vitaly, 55, has been working there since 2004 together with nine employees. It is he who took care of the burials in the Shakespeare cemetery. Over the past six months, his team has handled five times more burials than in peacetime. Vitaly is convinced that the dead are all civilians, with few exceptions.
He still remembers the beginning of the Russian invasion, in February. The bombs, “the streets full of corpses”, the 114 bodies found after the bombing of two buildings near the river in mid-March. “At the beginning the occupants had forbidden any burial, saying they would take care of it”, says Vitaly. But the bridge connecting the city to the road network had been destroyed, so the bodies had to be transported one by one, on foot, on a walkway. So the Russian army had given up and gave Vitaly an authorization.
Most of the buried people met a violent death: bombing or fighting. The bodies are battered
Shakespeare Cemetery had been designated as the main burial site. The occupants had already installed one of their bases in the surrounding pine forest and this would allow them to control operations. In addition, some Russian strategic installations had been placed a little further away, in the woods, just behind the cemetery. The buryers could not get close to that area.
The graves had to be dug in front of the cemetery, outside the walls.
“We had to work at full speed and under the constant bombardments”, says Vitaly. “Five or six of us arrived, carrying different bodies.” Vitaly and his were repeatedly beaten by the military who accused them of being spies for the Ukrainian forces. “We worked for free, paid only in food and diesel”. Above the office of the funeral home, a woman looks out the window and says that the city lacks water, electricity and gas. Today some doors retain the writings made at the time of the Russian invasion. “Women and children live here”. One shop assures that it has “neither beer nor vodka”.
Sometimes Vitaly could not find the wood for the crosses of the burials. “In that case we were sticking a small stick into the mound.” There was often no time for license plates. “We wrote a number on the grave and in a notebook I reported the name, the date and the place where we had found the body”. Vitaly’s “book of the dead” was confiscated by investigators.
Under number 1, that of the first recorded death, there is the date “March 3 or 4”. Under the last one, 455, is reported on September 15, the day after the discovery of the site. Vitaly made the estimates of him. According to him, about twenty people still need to be identified. Another twenty or so would have died from gunshots, probably executed. Most of the buried people met a violent death: bombing or fighting. The bodies are battered. But the official account does not stop there, it becomes dizzying. In Izjum there are six other cemeteries, where Vitaly says he helped some families to bury another 300 bodies, by lending them a van or digging the grave. “In general they forbade us to go there, because they were mined”. In addition, many inhabitants would have buried their loved ones in courtyards and vegetable gardens.
Even before the liberation of Izjum, the Ukrainian authorities claimed to have alarming information about the city, with reports of torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. “You will see, we will discover a worse situation than that of Buča (the martyr city near Kiev),” said Oleh Synehubov, governor of the region in July. The macabre arithmetic, therefore, is not yet complete, and could even become crazy: it is thought that other burial places may still be discovered. According to Vitaly, “when they tortured someone, the Russians personally took care of the corpses”. The bodies of some men with their hands tied were found along the river.
In Izjum there are also persistent rumors about a torture center created by the Russian military inside the police station. Visiting the facility is impossible even for the Ukrainian police. “The building is not yet safe,” explains an agent. A temporary location was set up in a checkpoint at one of the main intersections of the town. Under a bus shelter some people are sitting with their eyes downcast and their identity papers on their knees. They are accused of collaborating with the Russians and are waiting to be questioned.
In the pine forest the path to the Shakespeare cemetery climbs through the trees in the autumn light. Deep furrows mark the places where Russian troops hid their chariots, while the foliage covers a makeshift base where the traces left by the occupants are still visible: a pair of gloves, tin cans. The tombs are a little higher. Workers dressed in blue and armed with spades are scrambling at the edge of the graves. Between 14 and 17 September the bodies of 16 men and 26 women were exhumed and entrusted to medical examiners. Add those of 17 Ukrainian soldiers found in a mass grave, the only discovery on the site, at least so far. They were buried by the Russians and nothing is known about them yet, explains Vitaly.
Oleksander Kovalchuk gathers in front of the grave of his mother, who died for lack of medicines and treatments. Kovalchuk no longer even has a photo of the woman. He kept them in his phone. “I canceled them because the Russians controlled everything.” It was risky to keep images, even family ones. For his mother’s burial, Kovalchuk was lucky: he found a cross, a coffin, a bouquet of plastic flowers and a plaque with his name on it. “She has had it all”. What is the date of his death? Kovalchuk’s eyes fill with tears. He can’t answer. The war, the Russians, everything is confused around a grave where he could not go. He approaches the plaque and reads: “Galina Vlasenko, born March 7, 1953, died May 18, 2022. Number 342”.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)
This article appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde.