SStanding in the dark, Maksim Maksimov pointed to where he was tortured with electric shocks. Russian soldiers took him from his cell in the basement of the Izium police station. They sat him on an office chair and attached a zigzag alligator clip to his finger. It was wired to an old-fashioned Soviet military field telephone.
And then it started. A soldier turned the crank, turning it faster and faster. This sent an excruciating pulse through Maksimov’s body. “I collapsed. They pulled me to my feet. There was a hood over my head. I couldn’t see anything. My legs went numb. I couldn’t hear out of my left ear,” he recalls. “Then they started again. I fainted. I returned 40 minutes later to my cell.
The Russian army occupied the police station in April. This followed a furious month-long battle with Ukrainian forces who had based themselves on a hill next to the Soviet war memorial at Izium. According to Maksimov, a 50-year-old publisher, soldiers arrested anyone suspected of holding pro-Ukrainian views. He had stayed behind to take care of his elderly mother.
They searched for military veterans, home care volunteers and city hall officials. The Russians arrived with a list of names. Some local politicians seem to have collaborated. Among them were several city council deputies and a retired police chief, Vladislav Sokolov, who became the new pro-Vladimir Putin “mayor” of Izium.
Residents were unable to say how many people went missing during the five-month Russian occupation of the city. An answer could be found on Saturday in a sunny pine forest on the outskirts of the city, close to a Russian checkpoint. Beneath orange-barked trees, Ukrainian forensic experts were going through a gruesome process of exhuming and uncovering the truth.
A Russian battalion had parked its tanks next to a cemetery, cutting branches and building underground shelters with neat log roofs. The war dead from Izium – 443 people since February – joined them in the nearby sandy plots. They included 17 Ukrainian soldiers. They were dug up on Friday from a hollow dug for a tank, used as a mass grave.
Ukrainian armed forces discovered the gruesome site when they invaded Izium a week ago, in a stunning counter-offensive that saw them recapture almost the entire northeast region of Kharkiv. On Friday, the first 40 bodies were removed. Some had their hands tied; on a woman’s decomposed arm was a bracelet in Ukrainian blue and yellow colors. On Saturday, experts in white overalls continued to dig. The graves were marked with wooden crosses. Watched by the police, they scraped, extracted bodies and carefully deposited them in a clearing. The first was a soldier, identifiable by his camouflage pants and boots. Then two civilians – one of whom may be a woman – and another soldier. All were zipped up in white bags.
“Sometimes we find IDs and passports. But we don’t have names for many of them here. Or the cause of death,” Roman Kasianenko, deputy chief prosecutor of Kharkiv, told the Observer. “There are signs of torture. We found individuals with their hands tied and limbs broken. But, he pointed out, “It’s too early to tell if it’s another Bucha.”
The site smelled strongly of human rot and pine resin. Relatives said Russian missiles killed their relatives. Oxsana Gruzodub had come to report the death of the family of her daughter-in-law, Anatoly, Galina and their 14-year-old son Artyom. They died on March 9 when a Russian warplane bombed their building, she said.
Another relative, Feyodor, was looking for the place where his wife Svetlana was buried in grave number 333. A cluster bomb killed her on May 16 in the street, he said. Feyodor and his nephew, Nikolai, wandered past the police tape and eventually located the place. He was in tears. Svetlana – like the others – would be dug up next week and sent to a laboratory in Kharkiv.
Showing the Observer around Izium’s shattered cross, Maksimov admitted he got lucky. A group of young Russian conscripts arrested him in March shortly after taking up position on the outskirts of the city, beside the reed-lined Siverskyi Donets River. They caught him as he was crossing the town’s pedestrian bridge.
The soldiers told him that they had come from Belarus. Later that evening, the Ukrainians shelled the riverside building where he was being held. The Russians hid in another room. Maksimov ran down the street, grabbed his bike and escaped.
He was detained a second time on September 3 by soldiers who accused him of being a Ukrainian spy. The police station’s torture chamber, he later discovered, was an indoor shooting range, with soundproof walls. The guards came from the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR).
These separatist auxiliaries brought the prisoners cold soup twice a day. Their toilet was a bucket. Three rats lived on a ledge next to a window. Maksimov shared a cell with two other local men. On the sixth day, the guards said the Ukrainians were coming and threatened to throw a grenade into their room. The next day, other NRL goalkeepers appeared and told them to run.
About a quarter of the 60,000 inhabitants of Izium lived under Russian rule. A third of them sympathized with the occupiers, Maksimov said. “It’s Stockholm syndrome,” he suggested. The Russians have swapped diesel for homemade vodka. The city lived with little food and no electricity.
The editor said he didn’t expect the Russian military to leave Izium without a fight. They made a chaotic exit last week, dropping T-80 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles and rows of mortars. On Saturday, Ukrainian troops rode around Izium in these old Russian war machines, hastily repainted with a plus sign and the Ukrainian flag.
Within days, Ukrainian forces liberated an area half the size of Wales, recapturing over 300 settlements and pushing the enemy back to a new defensive line about 10 miles east of Wales. ‘Izium, which was key to the Kremlin’s plan to seize. the Donbass. His loss means there is now little chance of that happening soon, if ever.
However, as the Russians retreat, the price paid by the civilians becomes clearer. Russian soldiers rounded up and executed hundreds of civilians in February and March in Bucha and other satellite towns in the Kyiv region. The last mass grave in Izium suggests that this was not an anomaly. Rather, it is part of a wild pattern seen in every area occupied by Moscow.
Ukrainian officials say they have found at least 10 torture chambers in other newly liberated towns, including Vovchansk, just on the border with Russia, Kupiansk and Balakliia. “The Russians wore masks and tortured civilians with exposed electric wires,” said Andriy Nebytov, head of the main national police directorate in the Kyiv region.
The Kremlin says its forces are “regrouping” and has responded to military setbacks by ordering attacks on critical civilian infrastructure. Last week, Russian warplanes fired missiles at a dam and reservoir in Kryvyi Rih, the hometown of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, causing major flooding. They also targeted the Kharkiv power station, plunging the city into darkness.
Most of Izium has been destroyed. The main boulevard is full of gutted buildings and bullet-riddled walls. The administration building is a strange ruin of sandbags. A bomb tore off a piece of the dome of a church. The city’s road bridge was destroyed, with residents commuting on bicycles.
But life is already coming back. Residents line up for aid packages, delivered in the central square that was once used for celebrations. Women wheel shopping carts past a John Lennon mural. The town’s beer factory remains closed but a cafe reopened on Saturday. “You look at all of this and think we have no future,” Maksimov said. “But I believe so. We can rebuild.