Investigators searching a mass cemetery 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 said.
The site near Izyum, recently recaptured from Russian forces, appears to be one of the largest discovered in Ukraine.
In a video shared hours after the excavations began Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than 400 graves were found at the site.
He said hundreds of civilians, adults and children, as well as soldiers, had been found “tortured, shot, killed by shelling” near Pishchanske cemetery in Izyum.
Hoda Abdel-Hamid of Al Jazeera visited the site where she had seen graves with simple wooden crosses. Some carried people’s names, date of birth and death, but others were just numbers.
“The site was bleak, some [of the bodies] were in a very bad condition, some seemed to have lost their lives long ago as their bodies were decomposing – it’s going to be a huge job for the forensic experts,” said Abdel-Hamid.
“We also saw a small mass grave with 17 bodies being brought out. They all looked like soldiers,” she said, adding that investigators had previously found a marking that indicated “Ukrainian troops.”
If the body count is confirmed, the site at Izyum, a former stronghold on Russia’s front lines, would be the largest mass grave found in Europe since the aftermath of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.
While digging in the rain, workers dragged body after body from the sandy soil into a misty pine forest near Izyum. Protected by head-to-toe suits and rubber gloves, they gently fumbled through the decomposing remains of the victims’ clothing, seemingly searching for identifying items. Prior to the dig, researchers with metal detectors scanned the site for explosives. Soldiers stretched red and white plastic tape between the trees.
In another sign of possible torture, a man was found with his hands tied, according to Serhiy Bohdan, Kharkov’s chief of police investigations and Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets.
Oleg Synegubov, head of Kharkiv’s regional administration, said on Friday that 99 percent of the exhumed bodies showed signs of violent death, adding that more than 1,000 Ukrainian civilians were likely tortured and killed in liberated areas of the region.
The head of the pro-Russian government that left the area last week rejected accounts of the funerals outside the city of Izyum and accused the Ukrainians of carrying out atrocities. “I haven’t heard anything about funerals in Izyum,” Vitaly Ganchev told state television Rossiya-24.
Zelenskyy, who visited the Izyum area on Wednesday, said the discoveries once again demonstrated the need for world leaders to declare Russia a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
News of the mass cemetery caught the attention of the UN human rights agency, which said it would investigate, while human rights group Amnesty International said the discovery confirmed its “darkest fears”.
“For any unlawful murder 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.
Top European Union diplomat Josep Borrell said he was “deeply shocked” by the discovery. White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said the reports were “horrifying”.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to continue the war despite Ukraine’s gains and warned Moscow could step up its attacks on the country’s vital infrastructure if Ukrainian forces attacked facilities in Russia.
Speaking to reporters Friday after attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, Putin said the “liberation” of the entire eastern Donbas region of Ukraine remains Russia’s main military goal.
“We are in no rush,” the Russian leader said, adding that Russia has only deployed volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine.