The tortured bodies, buried in the mud: inside the abyss of the Izyum wood

from Francesco Battistini

They are the largest mass graves discovered in Europe since the time of Srebrenica: among the 445 corpses also of children

If this is a dead man. The body disjointed and folded into a kind of thema pile of muddy and faded rags to wrap it up, a noose around the neck. They lift him in two from the fat earth of the wood and slowly, be careful, you have to be delicate in handling these buried subjects. Which are more fragile than the lives they contained. Who carry truths too heavy for their thin bones. Doctor Vitali Kravchenko is a retired forensic doctor. They called him to help out in this mass graves morgue, and he’s a big man. But when he kneels on that rag of a man, he becomes small like us. Bent too, under the banality of an enormous evil. He took off his mask and all disgust: he has been digging for three days and now he cannot distinguish the fresh scent of pines from the rotten stench of corpses. «I had never seen so many and all together …». He wipes the dirt with his hands, and seems to be stroking the dead. He tries to find a face that is no longer there. A document in his pockets, a ring on his fingers, something you identify. Anything. All that remains is the white body bag and the black marker, to give the only possible identity: 321.

Smell and silence

They take us en masse, to see to believe. Journalists and magistrates. Order of the President Volodymyr Zelensky who wants a thousand and a thousand witnesses in the face of war crimes committed by the retreating Russians. The secret of the Izyum forest is no longer a secret. It is the smoking gun, the Ukrainians say, that may not bring Putin to the Hague Court, but some of his hierarchs will. TO Bucha he had pretended that it was all a fake, a Irpin it’s at Mariupol he had also denied the truth, but Izyum is staged a horror show that invests you as soon as you enter the forest, an evidence that does not require videos or satellite photos to sift: in the silence of the pine forest, there is only the sweetish stench of 445 bodies already found, and of others who knows where. The largest mass graves ever discovered in Europe since Srebrenica and the Balkan wars. The body found with the noose on says that “99% are not people who died in the circumstances of war”it’s safe Oleh Kotenkocharged with investigating the desaparecidos of recent months: «There are so many bodies signs of violencesome we have unearthed with the hands tied behind the back. Even several children. In Izyum and in the villages of the Kharkiv region there were 10 torture chambers“.

Everything is carefully inspected, because eighty percent of the buildings in the area were destroyed and the other twenty is often mined. Survivors say they endured beatings and electric shocks. “They didn’t bury me in the woods just because they ran away earlier,” says Maxim, who is wearing a T-shirt with the inscription unleash the beastunleashes the beast, without knowing that he has seen it too wild: “They kept me in a basement. One day I passed out. I was sure I was going to die“.

Investigator Kotenko promises that «we will go to the bottom, there will also be a UN team, to understand how many of these corpses have gone through those violence ”. And the certainty, he adds, is that there are other mass graves around. The Russians did nothing to hide the massed corpses: in Srebrenica, to say, the Serbs had dismembered them and scattered them throughout Bosnia (so much so that many victims, even today, have not been recognized…). And that’s why Izyum risks entering the geography of Katyn, Bergen-Belsen, historical slaughterhouses abandoned to the horror of memory. On the main street and up to the square, in front of a surreal neon I love Izyum written in Cyrillic, there is not even a wall intact. Around, only old people queuing up at midday for bread and humanitarian aid: «I don’t care if they bring Putin to The Hague – cries Ivan, 83 -. It matters to me to know if I find bread tomorrow! ». He does not even care that the Russians destroyed the technical institute of Izyum, a small brutalist monument which at the time of the USSR had young Zhukov, the invincible and most faithful marshal of Stalin, study here (by disfigurement, on the facade of the municipal cinema , the men of the Z left a black and white blow-up of a Nazi parade): “I have lived many lives – says Ivan -, but I did not expect this end”.

Collaborators with shovels

The largest mass grave, about seventy bodies and many soldiers, is immediately on the right. It is being mined, all around, and every 5 minutes there is a rumble in the silence of the woods. The digging team, wearing blue plastic, is exhausted: “We work 72 hours a day – says Ihor, 26, a few words of Italian because of his studies in Catania -, it is the worst task that can happen. But many of us are volunteers, we don’t get a penny. We know watching this crap is necessary“. There are 200 wooden crosses. Some with the name: Novikov Yakiv Genadiyovin, born in 1976 … And too many with the number: unknown 93, unknown 94 … The graves were not dug only by the Russians, they tell Izyum: “They brought with them a fifty collaborators with shovels“. All people have fled across the border, now that this East has been reconquered. “It was normal for them to choose the forest,” says a man in a Russian Navy shirt, who has lost his wife: a few meters away is the town cemetery, he points out, and the dead of Izyum have always been here. But who says they are only tortured underground? “We will make the DNA of all the bodies – promises the governor of Kharkiv, Oleh Synehubov -, we will compare it with that of the missing people”.

A little further on, there is a small cemetery for the cansthe. The only curate. The only one that the Russians have not trampled on, and full of flowers. It is only at the end of the visit on the mounds of loose earth, between shovels and masks, that someone remembers these 445 killed like dogs, buried unknown, without funeral until the investigation is completed. A lady brings a bunch of sunflowers, soaked and overturned. She places them on the deepest of the pits. They have no perfume. And they don’t erase the smell of shame.

September 16, 2022 (change September 16, 2022 | 23:27)

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The tortured bodies, buried in the mud: inside the abyss of the Izyum wood

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