How Ukraine is hunting Russian troops who carried out atrocities

451 murder victims… and the hunt to find their killers: How Ukraine’s secret service is hunting Russian troops who carried out one of the war’s earliest atrocities uncovered with the discovery of a shocking mass grave

  • Ukraine’s secret service is hunting down the troops who killed civilians in Izium
  • 450 were buried in a mass grave by a local Ukrainian man called Vitaly
  • The story is being told in an upcoming ITV documentary called The Grave 

It was clear to Vitaly that he needed to start digging graves soon after learning that the Russian military was making its way into his country last February. 

Though he expected bloodshed and strife, nothing could prepare him for the raw brutality of Putin’s forces, and their willingness to put their humanity aside for the sake of more Ukrainian territory. 

The elderly man, who did not take on the role of town gravedigger lightly, said: ‘When there was no shelling, we dug and buried. When there was shelling, we got out.

‘Cluster shells, rocket launchers, everything, they were just firing, knowing that there was no-one from the military in these buildings, they just hit the civilian population. Just a mass murder of people.’

Within just a few days of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Vitaly’s city, Izium, was overrun by Russian forces, who indiscriminately hit civilian targets. 

Vitaly buried 451 bodies, almost all of them Ukrainian civilians, in a small forest outside the city. Many were found with signs of torture, and several were found with bullet wounds. 

Russian troops indiscriminately fired upon civilian targets when they took Izium

Vitaly helped bury 451 people, mostly Ukrainian citizens, in a forest near Izium

The bodies were exhumed last autumn after Ukraine regained the territory 

But the speed at which the bodies piled up, and the brutal ways they were killed, meant that many of them are yet to be identified. 

‘There were a lot of unknown people, there were a lot of unknown remains,’ he said. 

After Russian forces were pushed of the region last autumn, investigators exhumed ’50 to 60′ bodies a day, and Ukraine’s secret service are now hunting down the Russian troops who committed the sickening war crimes in Izium. 

One investigating officer said: ‘What the Russian military has done, it is against humanity, against Ukraine, against Ukrainians, and could be called genocide.’

The secret service are looking to shed light on what happened to the civilians of the region. 

Two service officials have been searching for relatives and possible DNA matches with those who were buried in the Izium forest, in an attempt to bring closure to the thousands in the city who lost loved ones, including Halyana Zhykhareva. 

451 bodies were buried in a forest near Izium, north-east Ukraine, after Russian forces occupied the region

Many bodies were unidentified, leaving many in Izium not knowing what happened to their loved ones

The great-grandmother lost several members of her family, including two young girls ages six and nine, when a 500kg bomb levelled the apartment block they lived in.

’52 people died. My whole family was there.’she quietly said. 

Their bodies lay in the rubble for months before they could be recovered and given makeshift burials, and it’s only now that she has been able to bury them with dignity. 

The hunt for the perpetrators of the long, drawn-out massacre at Izium is being documented in a new film, The Grave. 

Allie Wharf, who produced and directed The Grave, said: ‘This war is unlike many others that I’ve covered. 

‘In many cities away from the front line the Ukrainians are trying to live ’normal’ lives, to rebuild as things are destroyed but the terror and sadness and grief and anger and despair are just below the surface. 

‘Witnessing the bravery and professionalism of my young colleagues in Ukraine has been an outstanding experience in my filmmaking career and to hear from them, that the act of filmmaking, working, reporting their country’s suffering has saved them from despair is a testament to the power of that undertaking.’

The documentary, which will be shown on ITV1 on November 6 at 10:45 pm, comes as the 20-month mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ticks by and hundreds of alleged war crimes have been documented. 

The bodies of Izium’s residents lay in the rubble for months before they could be recovered

Halyana Zhykhareva (pictured) lost several members of her family, including her great-granddaughters, ages six and nine

Earlier this week, the BBC reported that nine people, including two young children, were shot dead in their home in the Russian-occupied town of Volnovakha. 

Ukrainian officials believe Russian soldiers killed the whole Kapkanets family on Friday for not handing over their home. 

Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said on Monday that ‘Russians’ bloodied hands were involved’ in the Volnovakha killings.

‘According to preliminary information, the occupiers have killed the whole of the Kapkanets family, who were celebrating a birthday and who had refused to hand their own house over to occupiers from Chechnya,’ he said on Telegram.

Both Russia and Ukraine are investigating the horrific incident. 

The conflict, the bloodiest on European soil in decades, has seen hundreds of thousands of soldiers injured and killed on both sides. 

The Wall Street Journal reported in August that up to 50,000 amputations needed to be performed on Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. 

By contrast, 41,000 British soldiers needed to be amputated during the whole of World War I. 

Doctors in Ukraine blamed Russia’s heavy use of landmine that it laid on its frontlines, as well as the heavy use of artillery and missiles.

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