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“You look through dead bodies and can't find the person you're looking for.” Izium residents recount how their city was destroyed

The Russian army captured Izium in early spring, and the town was used as a supply base for Russian troops until it was liberated. After the de-occupation, hundreds of graves were discovered in the forests near Izium. Survivors sometimes had to conduct their own investigations to find and identify the bodies of their relatives. Izium residents told The Insider how Russian bombings destroyed their homes and how they lived under Russian occupation.

Main photo: Stas Yurchenko, Grati

  • Victoria, 47: “I recognized my mother's body by the shawl: there were little pearls sewn into it”

  • Inna, 46: “Our district has been completely ruined, there's not a living soul there”

  • Mykhailo Yatsentyuk, 65: “As I entered the stairwell the bomb killed my whole family”

Victoria, 47: “I recognized my mother's body by the shawl: there were little pearls sewn into it”

We had no electricity, no gas, no water. Severe frosts hit at the beginning of March, sometimes temperature went down to -20°C. We lived in a multi-story house. And while some people had stoves or boilers in their private homes, we had to heat a bucket of water over a fire, then we poured it into plastic bottles and put it in beds with us to keep warm. We would get up in the morning and the tops of the blankets would be wet with condensation: it was 0°C in the apartment. We wore two pairs of pants and two blouses and slept in hats. We cooked on campfires whatever food we had left over. Some people had stocked up on food in advance, but our family did not believe to the last minute that there would be war.

Not everyone could leave. Those who had transportation tried to leave the city.

At the beginning of March we were shelled for the first time, we were sitting in the air-raid shelter at school # 11, about 200 people were there with us. In the morning we counted 15 craters around the school and 2 hits in the building. We wanted to make sure our relatives were alive. We came to them, saw them, hugged each other and ran to see if the apartment was still intact. It survived, only the glass was broken because of the shock wave. Around March 6, we were sitting in a bomb shelter when Russian APCs arrived. First, they threw a sonic grenade in, women came out to say we were with children. Someone ran in and told us we had 10 minutes to get out, so we took our things and went back home.

On March 7-8, all communications broke down. We had to cook outside, lit fires, made tea, and gathered snow. There was no water at all. The wells were already very muddy. Most of the wells were served by pumps and needed electric power. If there was no electricity, there was no water either. I had made a reserve: I collected 150 liters at the beginning of the war, and they came in handy. We used the water to wash dishes, to heat the bottles or to wash up. At first, we used what we had left over, saving food supplies. Then, when things settled down, they started bringing us food. Food was expensive, but people still took it: we had to eat something.

In the meantime so-called mop-up operations were underway in the city: Russian soldiers went door-to-door, checked apartments, and if somebody refused to open the door, they broke it down. My neighbors and I made an agreement to leave our keys with each other, so we could open each other’s doors in the event of a cleanup operation.

On March 11 I got a text message from my sister in the Czech Republic, saying that she had left Izyum. I called her and said: «Tanya, it's settled down a bit, I'm going to run to our house and pick up mom.» She answered me, «Don't you know mom's house is gone?» We really didn't know they bombed our house when the planes were flying over. We ran to my mother's house, and when we got to the river, they wouldn't let us in. We begged the military, said we wanted to see the house. They warned us: if we tried to cross, we wouldn't be able to get back and we were unlikely to survive. From the side of Zamostianskaia Street we had a pedestrian bridge. We reached it, there were tanks there. I wanted to tie a white bandage around my arm, so that they wouldn’t touch me, but they started chasing us away and fired a rocket in our direction from a portable launcher. We saw tanks nearby: soldiers started yelling at us ordering us to leave. We then crouched down, waited for the return fire and ran back home. That day I couldn't get close to the house, but I saw from a distance that it was black. There was a hole instead of walls. I couldn't get close to it. We headed home running.

House at 2 Pervomayskaya Street
House at 2 Pervomayskaya Street

The second time I went there three days later. There were dead bodies on the bridge, and a burned down car. When I came close to the house, I got hysterical: I screamed and screamed... I found my neighbors and they told me my mother hadn’t been home, she had left with her sister. I answered that only my sister had left, and my mother had stayed behind. They suggested she could have been in another bomb shelter, we ran around asking if anyone knew her, but no one knew anything. We tried to clear the rubble, but there were such huge slabs that we couldn't lift them. We came to the ruined house every day, hoping for something.

We came to the ruins every day, hoping for something

The clearing of the debris began on April 1. At first, we found three people - Sasha, Raisa Ivanovna Galushko and Lena Kharchenko. Raisa Ivanovna, it turned out, had been still alive after the explosion. She had been screaming from under the rubble, calling for help, they brought her water and food, but then she died.

When they got to the basement, the house was falling apart even more. By the 20th, they took out the Yatsenyuk family of seven - Aunt Natasha, Aunt Zina, Mikhail's daughter Olga, son-in-law Vitalik and three grandchildren. The youngest girl, Arisha, was 3.5 years old. Only the grandfather survived and said that his granddaughter rescued him by asking for tea; he left to get some tea and then the bomb exploded.

When they started taking people out and identifying them, I was expecting they would take out the bodies and we would come up and identify them. But they were so unrecognizable! There were hardly any faces. Only Luda Zarepina was identified by her height, and we found her keys on her.

The people they pulled out from under the rubble were unrecognizable. There were almost no faces

There was a man we could not identify, either Andrei Yakovenko, or Yura Repin, or Lesha Sudakov. It turned out that it was Petrovich, our house superintendent. When the guys who dealt with the funeral arrived, they searched all the pockets and found his documents. And we had thought of completely different people. There was only one person who still had his smartphone with a selfie on him, it was Vladimir Pedun. That's how we recognized him.

We found a woman with a phone next to her. We looked, the SIM-card worked, we put it into another phone, we saw that her daughter Angela and her granddaughter Olechka had called her, so we knew it was Lydia Ivanovna Efimenko. That's how we identified her.

Mom was there... I'm not sure about that, though. When they were taking people out, they found a piece of a body. The first responders told me: «Don't go there, there's a piece of a child's body, it's not your mother. I came home, told my husband, and he said: «I'll go see for myself.» He called Mikhail Nikolaevich, our neighbor, and they left. Then he came back and said: «Let's go and look together».

Morgue in Izyum, 20.09.2022 Stas Yurchenko, Grati
Morgue in Izyum, 20.09.2022 Stas Yurchenko, Grati

There was a fragment of a body without the head. Before that, the guys brought a burnt passport, in the sunlight they could read «Petrova Lyubov Fedorovna», my mother... When everyone went to look at the bodies, I saw clothes that looked like hers, but I didn't know for sure if she had been wearing them: she lived with her sister. Everything was dirty and the body was burned, but judging by the fragments the shawl looked like my mother's: it had little pearls sewn into it. The rest of the clothes were completely unfamiliar to me; a sweater was worn on top of the coat. I couldn't understand how a sweater could be worn on top of a coat?

Everything was dirty, the body was burned, but judging by the fragments the shawl looked like my mother's: it had little pearls sewn into it

I kept that body at home for a week, I didn't let them bury it as I went looking. There was no communication then, we couldn't get through to my sister to tell her what I'd found. So I had to give that body away for burial, under a number. And when we went for a ride on our bicycles 15 km away from Izyum, near Mykolayivka, I got in contact with my sister. When I told her I did not understand how one could wear a jacket on top of a coat, she answered that mom used to wear her clothes in such a way: that way she felt warmer.

Fifty-two people had died in that house. I know the number of the grave where my mom was buried, but I hope for the exhumation of the bodies - then we'll know exactly who had died. Because we removed body fragments separately: legs, what remained of guts, torsos. It was clearly an air strike. Yes, tanks had hit the house, but a tank would not have ruined it like that. People were not only torn apart by the blast wave, the first responders said the basement was still smoldering, although over a month had passed. Heaven forbid anyone should have to go through that - looking for their relatives and loved ones. It's the worst thing, especially when you look through dead bodies and can’t find the person you're looking for among them.

As for the forests, they say there are already 450 graves there, but they haven’t exhumed all the bodies. Now I can't travel to Izyum for health reasons, but I want experts to conduct an examination. Various body remains - hands, legs, and torsos - ended up in different graves because they had been buried separately. Maybe somewhere else there would be a fragment of mom's body. It’s good they found documents, but in most cases people and documents got separated.

Body remains, arms, legs, and torsos, were buried in different graves

When everybody was buried, we still gathered around the house. I looked at my apartment and wept: it was my mother's. I kept thinking: what if she had managed to exit the cellar? She came and said goodbye to me in my dreams. So much time has passed, half a year... Recently I got up the courage to go to church. My priest and I did a funeral service in absentia. I don't know whether or not it was proper. Still, I want to believe they had run away and hidden somewhere. So what, if they found her passport... Only someone who has gone through such a thing can understand it.

There is no forgiveness to them.

Inna, 46: “Our district has been completely ruined, there's not a living soul there”

On March 5, heavy shelling of Izyum started. My husband miraculously evacuated, took my mother and they went to 2 Pervomayskaya Street. They thought they would be safe there. Our house was in the most visible place near the river - it was blown up on March 9. The Russians simply fired on it, knowing that civilians were inside. There was a multi-story building in that place and now there is a hole in the middle of the house. People were hiding from the shelling in the basement. They set up bunks there and cooked food. As a result, whole families died in that basement - grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, children. My mother, husband, mother-in-law and a relative were there; they were not found or identified. A total of 52 people died in that house. But only charred body fragments were found.

A total of 52 people died in this house. Only charred body fragments were found

After the high-explosive bomb had hit the house, there was no one left to rescue. It took them a month to start removing the rubble, since the victims were still buried under the slabs. About five people survived the explosion. Everyone who survived was in their apartment, but everyone who stayed in the basement was killed.

Rescue workers are currently busy removing rubble in Izyum. People, including those who survived the shelling, were present during the clearing of the debris. My friend's mother had died there, and she and her husband tried to identify the bodies. Now there is a cemetery outside the city, where these people were buried under numbers. Only the Stolpakov family has a plaque: apparently, some of their relatives were present at the funeral.

Izyum after de-occupation  Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense
Izyum after de-occupation Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

We don't know where our relatives are. The exhumation of the bodies is now in full swing, and we don't know what to do. It was said there had been people alive beneath the ruins: groans had been heard from under the rubble. In April, rumors began to circulate that some of the residents had managed to leave the building before the tragedy. Relatives of the victims tried to investigate on their own, nobody helped us. We wanted the city leaders to help us, but they said there was nothing they could do because the Russians were in Izyum and there was shelling. This entire neighborhood, where our house was, had been completely destroyed. There is not a living soul there.

Mom was identified by her passport, which was found in her coat pocket. My husband, mother-in-law and one other relative were not found, only some body fragments. Maybe they weren't there. Someone said they saw my husband driving away in a car. I'd like to believe that, but I haven't been in contact with him for the past six months. Either he's missing or unidentified.

Someone managed to escape, someone succeeded in escaping from under the rubble. People were running around the city under shelling, hiding in basements without food or water, dirty and wounded. In the basement of our house everybody had died, but in the houses next door at least one person had survived. And this is the story of only two houses, but what happened all over the city was truly horrific. An acquaintance of mine lived in the private sector, closer to the forest, and they had gas supply all the time, they were lucky. But there was nothing everywhere else, people cooked on fires. Many had to sit in basements for more than a month: their apartments had burned - no water, no gas, no light. Water was taken from a river or a private well.

It was difficult to leave the city: there were no humanitarian corridors. Many people tried to leave Izyum via Russia, and then - who knows, from country to country. Huge sums of money were paid to transporters just to get from Izyum to Kupyansk. When people left, they had to undergo document checks and filtration. Those who had money were able to leave, those who did not had to stay.

Humanitarian aid soon ran out. In March, our mayor tried to visit Izyum, he had bread distributed around the basements, but this humanitarian aid lasted 2 or 3 days, and then shelling began, so it was impossible to travel to Izyum.

People were really starving. Those who had canned food survived on it. And when the Russians came at the beginning of April, they started offering handouts. Russian humanitarian aid included a small bag of food. Locals said Russian had stolen food from Ukrainian warehouses to give it away in their bags. At first, they were handing out bread for free, and then only to those who would work. In summer, a spontaneous bazaar came into existence: people sold vegetables and fruits from their gardens, other people went to Kupyansk for food. In March, all the stores there were pillaged: either by looters or by Russians.

At first they handed out bread for free, then only to those who would work

We had both rubles and hryvnias for currency. The Russians managed to give pensions of 10 thousand rubles each. One could only withdraw money from hryvnia-denominated cards in Kupyansk. And this had to be done either personally or by asking someone. People charges a 30% commission for this service. People who received pensions on their card accounts partnered up, asked someone, that person went to Kupyansk and cashed in.

There were also such occurrences: when shelling began and people were killed, literally 10-15 minutes later the Russians came, removed all the dead bodies and took them to an unknown destination. When the servicemen were picking up the bodies, relatives would run up to them shouting, «Where are you going? These are ours!» And the answer was, «We know where we’re taking them, we'll figure it out.” I think the corpses were taken to that cemetery and buried as a cover-up.

The wounded were taken to Russia. Some of them decided to stay there, some returned. Our hospital was ruined, and it had just been repaired. There had been a couple of surgeons there, who saved a lot of people.

There was no communication in the city. There is Kremenets Mountain in Izyum and people used to climb it to make phone calls: it was the only place they could get a signal. There was a Russian car on the mountain all the time: they listened in on the conversations. If someone started saying something «unnecessary,» they immediately cut the line.

There is a village called Kapitolovka near Izyum, where I worked at the fodder factory, it was even worse there. People just disappeared from the village, and then they were found dead. The same thing happened in the private sector.

They took away everyone who had served in the military. My acquaintance's husband had been a military man, he had joined the army at the beginning of the war and had been killed. The Russians came to her house, turned it upside down, then they visited her several more times. She explained that her husband had died, but they did not even want to listen. She said: «No sooner had I put everything in order, than they visited again, turned everything upside down, and insulted me. Thank God they didn't beat me.»

The occupants confiscated cars, and if someone tried to stop them, they fired at the garage. One man did not want to open the garage, so they booby-trapped it. After a while, other soldiers came and started demining the garage, demonstratively telling everyone: «See what your Ukrainian armed forces are doing? There are mines in your garages!» People said, «Yes, they mined it a few days ago.” Then the soldiers trained their assault rifles on them and said: «If you say something again, you're dead.»

The occupants confiscated cars, and if someone tried to stop them, they fired at the garage

All the schools in the city were destroyed. Out of 7 or 8 schools only one was more or less standing, the rest were either completely destroyed or had only walls and rooms burnt out. In the beginning there was a territorial defense unit deployed at school No. 4, but it was completely destroyed and then the Russians made a video saying that there was a hotel here. What hotel? It was a pre-revolutionary building that had stood through the Great Patriotic War, but not through this one.

Everyone complained about fighters from the “LNR” and “DNR.” People said they were creatures the world had never seen before. The Russians didn't talk to them much: they couldn't stand each other. They came to Izyum almost naked, barefoot, in slippers - they drank, they walked around, they went into apartments and houses... They took everything they wanted. They had no compunctions.

Fighters from the “LDNR” came to Izyum almost naked, barefoot, and in slippers: they drank, walked around, went into apartments and houses, and took whatever they wanted.

Checkpoints were everywhere. A week before the liberation, an acquaintance called me and said, «There are so many of them here!» People couldn't believe that de-occupation would happen so quickly. The Russian military simply left quietly, there wasn't even much fighting.

Most Izyum residents, of course, are happy about the de-occupation. Just yesterday or the day before yesterday there was shooting, there were missile hits, and then suddenly there was silence in the morning. People came out of their houses and saw our soldiers marching down the street. Many were crying with joy. And those who collaborated with the occupants quickly left the city - the self-proclaimed mayor Sokolov, former communist Famichevsky and the others.

Izyum is now being demined, people are asked not to return for the time being. 80% of the city is destroyed. Some houses are lucky: only windows are broken. But if you look elsewhere all you can see is charred remnants. Many houses are beyond repair and can only be demolished.

Mykhailo Yatsentyuk, 65: “As I entered the stairwell the bomb killed my whole family”

In Izyum after the occupation there was strong military presence: checkpoints, constant checks, cluster bombs - there was everything! In one place a bomb fell - 3 people were killed, in another - 1 person was killed. A cluster bomb landed near the Savings Bank as people lined up to receive Russian aid - 10,000 rubles. Who dropped it? We don't know.

There were patrols on the pedestrian bridge. They checked IDs upon entry and upon exit. It wasn't Russian troops, but the “DNR” and the “LPR.” I’m an elderly man, they didn't touch me, but men under 50-60 were ordered to undressed to the waist, the soldiers looked for arm tattoos, bruises on shoulders from gun belts, and the like. I saw it personally. The DNR guys were telling us: «We were under occupation for 8 years, now you will feel what it is like to be under Russia.” I even made friends with them, I used to bring them beer and stuff like that. I understand they are the same people as we are, they were just forcibly mobilized by Russians.

The staff of the commandant's office was Russian, their troops were stationed somewhere in the vicinity. Russia started bringing us humanitarian aid: they brought stewed meat, pasta, buckwheat, oil, but not vodka: they were heavily persecuted for it. They were looking for everybody, who was selling moonshine at bazaar, they punished for it, took people away and kept them in basements: Russian military servicemen were only human, they also drank and drank plenty. So, they punished us to stop their soldiers from drinking. At first, they brought vodka from Kupyansk, then it was prohibited.

In the house where I lived, 52 people were killed. Forty-two bodies were dug out from under the rubble, nine of them unidentified, 10 residents are missing, and we don't where they are. The house burned for two weeks. Everything was incinerated by the high-explosive bomb. On the day of the tragedy, I was there. I lost 7 people: my wife, my aunt, my daughter, her husband, our relatives and my granddaughter. I was with them in the basement.

I lost 7 people: my wife, my aunt, my daughter, her husband, our relatives and my granddaughter

When the shelling started, I was living in the «switchboard room» with my whole family. We had mattresses, mats and heating there. At one point my granddaughter Arishka said: «Grandpa Misha, get some tea.» I took a thermos and went out to heat some water, I just stepped out onto the stair landing – and a bomb fell. It was March 9, 9 am. I was thrown under the metal staircase and my legs were pinned by the slabs. At first I lost consciousness, but when I came to, I started freeing my legs. I was freeing my left leg for about 20 minutes, screaming and calling for my family. There was a book sitting on my leg. Water started dripping from somewhere on top of it. The book started to get wet, and little by little I pulled a leaf out of the book, and after about four hours I freed my other leg.

Then the slab squeezed my chest, I could not get out at once. Little by little, I began to loosen it, smash it with my hand, and gradually I was able to pull it away from me a little. Then my chest was free, and once my chest was free, I came all the way to the surface. I came out in my sweatpants and two sweatshirts, barefoot. It was 15 degrees below zero at night, and I caught a kidney cold. I lived for three days without heat and food, and then a friend of mine gave me shelter, he had a furnace heater.

The excavations began on April 1. My family was the first to be excavated on April 12. On April 13, I took them to the city cemetery to bury them. At the checkpoints, they stopped me, but eventually they let me through: they saw I was carrying cargo 200. On April 13, I buried my whole family: my daughter, son-in-law, and three children in a mass grave, and my wife and aunt separately.

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