IZIUM, Ukraine - Hundreds of graves had been cut into the sandy soil of a pine forest, isolated and unexamined. Police officers spoke in hushed tones. And newly dug up bodies lay all about on the forest floor.
A week after Russian forces fled north-eastern Ukraine, and days after President Volodymyr Zelensky raised the flag over the newly reclaimed city of Izium, Ukrainian investigators on Friday began a painstaking task: documenting the toll on the city of six months under Russian occupation.
They have already found several burial sites. The one in the pine forest, the largest of those, could hold the remains of more than 400 people who died during almost six months of Russian occupation, Ukrainian officials said.
The identities of many of those buried at that site and the causes of death remain unknown. Nor is it clear how many were civilians and how many were soldiers. But the scale of the gravesite underscored the depth of Ukrainian losses since Russia invaded, an estimated tens of thousands of people around the country.
Local officials estimate that as many as 1,000 people died in Izium during the occupation, many from a lack of medicine and medical care.
The city had a prewar population of some 40,000, although only an estimated 10,000 residents remained during the fighting.
The large burial site in Izium consisted of around 445 individual graves and one mass grave where soldiers appeared to have been buried, officials said. Some died when a Russian airstrike levelled an apartment building in March, according to residents.
Russian forces took control of Izium in late March, turning the key railway hub into a military stronghold and staging ground for its assault on eastern Ukraine. They fled last weekend as Ukrainian forces routed the Russians across the northeast.
Officials invited journalists to witness the exhumation process Friday, to call attention to what they claimed was evidence of more atrocities by Russian soldiers.
"The whole world should see this," Mr Zelensky wrote in a Telegram post Friday alongside images of investigators working at the site.
He said among the bodies were children, corpses bearing signs of torture, victims of missile attacks and Ukrainian soldiers.
"Russia leaves only death and suffering," Mr Zelensky added. "Murderers. Torturers. Deprived of everything human. You won't run away. You won't hide. Retribution will be justly dreadful." NYTIMES