The horror slowly unfolds from the burnt-out rubble in Izium, one of the most strategically vital towns for the Russians before its recapture last weekend by Ukrainian forces.
Tank carcasses with Moscow’s signature Z symbol are dotted along the crater-covered streets. Dozens of bombed-out apartment buildings in the city centre lie derelict along roads covered with the debris of what has been one of this war’s most fierce battles, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,000 people, according to Ukrainian officials. On Wednesday, the city, described as a second Mariupol because of the heavy bombardments it has suffered, was visited by the outside world for the first time after its recapture.
“It is impossible to explain what we have been through if you have not lived it,” says Olga, 44. “We lay down on the floor and remained inside our house, for so long that we learned to recognise bombs. If the Russian plane we heard from outside wasn’t that loud, then we knew it was going to drop two bombs. If, on the other hand, the plane was very loud, it would drop six. We counted every single explosion before we could breathe a sigh of relief.”
Outside the city administration building, which was still hot from being bombed, there were fresh bullet casings. Bodies brutalised by shelling are reportedly beginning to be recovered from the rubble, some apparently buried alive.
Regarded for centuries as the gateway to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and, from there, to the Black Sea, today Izium is a giant crime scene where Ukrainian prosecutors are moving fast to gather evidence on war crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Russians in the cities liberated by Kyiv.
“After the counter-offensive, we have found a few burial sites of local residents [across the Kharkiv region] that were murdered by the Russian military,” says Oleksandr Filchakov, Kharkiv region’s chief prosecutor. “Some of them even tortured. As for Izium, well, we have just started …”
According to testimony from residents and some police officers, at least 50 people died when Russia dropped a series of heavy bombs on a residential building near the main bridge. The apartment building split in two, with chunks taken off the edge, by what looks similar to the bombs used when Russians tried to capture Borodianka in the Kyiv region – a Fab-250 Soviet-era bomb designed to hit military targets such as enemy fortifications and bunkers.
There were no such structures, however, in this quiet town, which before the war had a population of 46,000 people. Today, a few thousand of them remain. Local people say the only way out was to Russia and many refused to go.
On 1 April, Izium fell to Russian forces and Moscow turned it into the main launching point for the Russian assault against the remaining Ukrainian troops in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas. Local authorities managed to evacuate part of the population but according to officials approximately 10,000 citizens remained trapped.
“After the Russians came in, the shelling was still constant: they put their tanks around the centre and there was incoming fire,” said Vitaliy Ivanovych, a 64-year-old former radio electronics engineer, who looked worn-out and was dressed in dusty brown clothes. “They wouldn’t let you leave, only if you wanted to go to Russia.”
Ivanovych said that mobile phone signals and electricity were cut during the bombing in early March. He said electricity was restored a month ago but not in all districts of the city, meaning some people lived without power for the entire period.
As most people in the city rely on electric pumps for their water supply, the lack of electricity also meant no water. Residents had rarely been able to wash themselves or their clothes.
But because of his background in radio, unlike many residents, Ivanovych had access to outside information. “I had a radio which I charged using a solar battery so I would catch the Ukrainian stations.”
The residents the Guardian interviewed were overwhelmingly happy that the Ukrainian army had retaken the city from the Russians and expressed hate towards the occupying forces. They were visibly traumatised by the shelling and destruction.
A woman posing with her friends with small Ukrainian flags outside the administration building says the Russians came round asking for their passport numbers and telling them that they would soon be issued Russian passports.
“I just said ‘no’ … and they just went away,” said the woman. “They were saying that it was the Ukrainian army who had bombed us but we didn’t believe it, we could tell where it was coming from.”
Those we spoke to said the Russian soldiers mostly kept to themselves, and had no direct knowledge of the Russians beating or torturing civilians, as has been reported in nearby Balakliya.
However, the residents the Guardian spoke to confirmed that when the Russians arrived in their city they already had lists of those locals who were in the military, the families of military people, or the people who were veterans of the Donbas war, which began in 2014.
“They knew exactly where to look, what address,” said the woman.
According to their testimonies, the Russians had allegedly kidnapped these men and taken them to unknown locations. Their fate, to date, remains a mystery.
“They disappeared,” says Eduard, 30. “A friend of mine rebelled against the Russian soldiers who had stolen his car. They killed him in cold blood, along with his dog.”
Natasha, a middle-aged shop worker, whose shop has been gutted by bombs, said: “Everything that has been bombed was done by the Russians … it happened in the first weeks of the war.”
Svitlana, a woman in her 40s who was cooking food on a stove outside her house, said she and her neighbours had had no gas since February. Svitlana said that she could not say she was happy to see the Ukrainian army.
“We don’t know who was shooting at us,” said Svitlana, who said she had had no access to the internet and news since the war started. “We’ll be happy once we have electricity and water. What’s going to happen in the winter, none of us have windows … we’re also scared that the bombing will restart.”’
Residents are attempting to return to life, in the hope that the battle that forced them into hiding for months, killed their friends and destroyed their homes is really over, even as explosions echo in the streets from the south-eastern frontline, just eight kilometres (five miles) away.
Today, the Russians have retreated to the east bank of the Oskil River, about 10 miles from Izium, whose recapture by Kyiv marked one the most strategic breakthroughs for Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made a surprise visit to Izium, and said he was “very shocked” but not surprised by the scale of the damage to the city. He thanked the paratroopers who took part in Izium’s liberation and watched as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of its gutted administration building.
A few days before the Ukrainians arrived, Natasha said the Russians had ordered a 10-day lockdown. Then on Saturday morning at 2am they heard trucks leaving. “They wouldn’t let us go anywhere, they switched off the electricity, there was no water,” said Natasha.
“The next day [Saturday morning], I looked out and I could see they were no longer standing at our checkpoint.
“We went out, they weren’t there,” she added. “Later our guys arrived.”
Additional reporting by Artem Mazhulin.
Read More:‘People disappeared’: Izium’s residents on Russia’s occupation