war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Mass burial site at Izium, imprisoned teenagers and other Russian war crimes in Kharkiv oblast

Halya Coynash

Izium mass grave Photo Myroslava Il’to

Izium mass grave Photo Myroslava Il’to

Just days after the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated Balakliya, Kupiansk, Izium and other towns and villages, it is already clear that the Russians have left a trail of war crimes, and the bodies of tortured victims, throughout the Kharkiv oblast.  Investigators are exhuming the bodies of well over 400 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians found in a mass burial site in Izium,  with at least some of the soldiers having also been tortured.  Four young girls and a boy, all aged between 15 and 17, have been rescued by Ukrainian border guards, after being imprisoned by Russian soldiers in the basement of a building in Kupiansk. While it remains unclear why the Russians abducted and incarcerated these children, in many other places people were held prisoner and tortured.

Mass graves at Izium

A mass burial site in Izium was first reported on 15 September, with Serhiy Bolvinov, Head of the Kharkiv Regional CID, reporting that there were around 440 separate graves.  Bolvinov informed Sky News that the bodies would all be exhumed and sent for forensic examination.  He explained that some of those buried had been shot, others had been killed in air strikes, shelling or by mines.  Many are yet to be identified.

Oleh Kotenko, Commissioner on those missing without trace, told Current Time that the Russian occupiers had themselves posted a video showing a burial site.  It had been clear, he said, that this place must be located as soon as the city was liberated.  The crosses had been made very quickly, with these in the majority of cases placed over graves for which there is only a number.  Local residents have told investigators that it was they who attempted to give the victims a burial.

The exhumation of bodies and investigation have only just begun, but it is already apparent that at least some of the victims were tortured. On 16 September, the Kharkiv regional police reported that they had recovered the bodies of 22 civilians, including children, and 17 Ukrainian soldiers from mass graves.  Several victims had hands bound behind their backs.  One person was found with a noose around the neck and fingers damaged.

Oleh Syniehubov, Head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration, says that of the bodies exhumed by the end of 16 September, 99% had died a violent death.

Other killings

The bodies have already been found, and exhumed, of civilians murdered by the Russians in the villages of Hrakove and Zaliznychne.  At least three deaths have already been reported in Balakliya, and it is likely that many more victims will be found.

Torture in Balakliya

The town of Balakliya, with a population of 27 thousand, was invaded at the beginning of March.  It was the first town in Kharkiv oblast to be liberated on 8 September.

Following liberation, the police discovered the bodies of two civilians who are believed to have been shot dead at a Russian checkpoint on 6 March.  Their bodies were found just 10 minutes’ walk from the town council building.

Serhiy Bolvinov reported on 13 September that the Russians had used the local police station as their headquarters and had organized the basement of this building as a torture chamber where they used electric shocks and other torture methods against local residents, men and women. Bolvinov says that the Russians always held at least 40 people prisoner.  They looked for those who had defended Ukraine in the first years of the military conflict in Donbas, or their relatives, as well as people who helped the Ukrainian Armed Forces. One person was held prisoner for 46 days because the invaders found a photo of his brother in Ukrainian military uniform.  Bolvinov says that, when the Russians had released some, and did not have new victims according to the above categories, they would simply grab people off the street.

Bolvinov has since stated that they have already confirmed the death of one person whom the Russians subjected to such torture.

Imprisonment of minors

Ukraine’s Border Guard Service reported on 15 September that their officers had freed the young people after receiving information about their plight from local residents of Kupiansk.  The five, who are from different parts of Kharkiv oblast, were all at the same educational institution.  They told their rescuers that the Russians had been putting them through so-called ‘filtration measures’ when they suddenly seized them and locked them up in a basement.  They had been imprisoned for seven days and were overwhelmingly grateful to their rescuers.

It is quite unclear why the invaders should have incarcerated five minors, and especially alarming that the group included four girls.  There are known to have been many cases of rape by the Russians in Kyiv oblast, and some of the victims there were murdered.

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