Investigators searching through a mass burial site in Ukraine have found evidence that some of the dead were tortured, including bodies with broken limbs and ropes around their necks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said.
The site near Izyum, recently recaptured from Russian forces, appears to be one of the largest discovered in Ukraine.
In a video shared just hours after the exhumations began on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that more than 400 graves were found at the site.
He said hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, had been found “tortured, shot, killed by shelling” near Izyum’s Pishchanske cemetery.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid visited the site where she reported seeing graves with simple wooden crosses. Some bore people’s names, dates of birth and death, but others were just numbers.
“The site was grim, some [of the bodies] were in a very bad condition, some appeared to have lost their lives a long time ago as their bodies were decomposing – It’s going to be a massive job for the forensic experts,” Abdel-Hamid said.
“We have also seen a small mass grave with 17 bodies being brought out, they appeared all soldiers,” she said, adding that investigators had earlier found a marker indicating “Ukrainian troops”.
If the number of bodies is confirmed, the site in Izyum, a former Russian front-line stronghold, would be the biggest mass burial found in Europe since the aftermath of the 1990s Balkan wars.
Digging in the rain, workers hauled body after body out of the sandy soil in a misty pine forest near Izyum. Protected by head-to-toe suits and rubber gloves, they gently felt through the decomposing remains of the victims’ clothing, seemingly looking for identifying items. Before exhumation, investigators with metal detectors scanned the site for explosives. Soldiers strung red and white plastic tape between the trees.
In another sign of possible torture, one man was found with his hands tied, according to Serhiy Bohdan, the head of Kharkiv police investigations, and Ukraine’s commissioner for human rights, Dmytro Lubinets.
Oleg Synegubov, head of the Kharkiv regional administration said on Friday that 99 percent of exhumed bodies had signs of violent death, adding that there were likely more than 1,000 Ukrainian citizens tortured and killed in liberated territories of the region.
The head of the pro-Russian administration which abandoned the area last week dismissed the accounts of the burials outside the city of Izyum and accused Ukrainians of stage-managing atrocities. “I have not heard anything about burials in Izyum,” Vitaly Ganchev told Rossiya-24 state television.
Zelenskyy, who visited the Izyum area on Wednesday, said the discoveries showed again the need for world leaders to declare Russia a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
The news of the mass burial site drew the attention of the UN human rights office which said it would investigate, while rights group Amnesty International said the discovery confirmed its “darkest fears”.
“For every unlawful killing or other war crime, there must be justice and reparation for victims and their families and a fair trial and accountability for suspected perpetrators,” said Marie Struthers, the group’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said he was “deeply shocked” at the discovery. The US White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the reports were “horrifying”.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to press on with the war despite Ukraine’s gains and warned that Moscow could ramp up its attacks on the country’s vital infrastructure if Ukrainian forces target facilities in Russia.
Speaking to reporters Friday after attending a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan, Putin said the “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbas region remained Russia’s main military goal.
“We aren’t in a rush,” the Russian leader said, adding that Russia has only deployed volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine.