“Pay us,” the Russian soldiers said, “or we’ll throw their bodies into the forest.”

When Volodymyr Kolesnyk went deep into the forest outside Izyum yesterday in search of his family’s final resting place, he had nothing but a scrap of paper with a list of numbers given to him by the Russian occupying forces: 199, 164 and 174.

r Kolesnyk lost his cousin Yuri Yakovenko, Mr Yakovenko’s wife Svitlana and mother Natalya in early March. Each of these numbers represented one of their bodies.

Moscow blamed the Ukrainian airstrikes, but said that was obviously not true as Kiev’s forces were operating in the area at the time and were beaten by the Russian army.

As next of kin, the Russian soldiers gave Mr Kolesnyk a choice – to pay for a proper burial site or the bodies would be dumped in roughly numbered graves in the pine forest along with the countless other victims of the war.

“They told us that the price for a proper burial would be 7,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (200 euros), but we didn’t have that money at the time,” Mr Kolesnyk told reporters.

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Police and experts are working on a mass burial site near Izyum

“They didn’t give me their death certificates when I asked – just the grave numbers.

“I visited them for the first time today because I was afraid to go there [when the Russians were here] I heard there were mines there,” said Mr Kolesnyk, speaking from his home yesterday, as gunshots and explosions were heard nearby.

Mr Kolesnyk set out to replace the numbers with names – to show his relatives the respect they had been denied in death.

In a lightning-fast counteroffensive, Ukraine has recaptured part of its eastern territory and liberated cities from Russian forces. In the process, they uncovered the dark legacy of the occupation.

The forest has become a sea of ​​white crosses, each marked with a number corresponding to a sacrifice. Officials have counted 450 hastily dug graves so far.

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A place of mass burial in the forest

“Russia leaves behind only death and suffering. Murderer. Torturers,” said Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, about the scenes in Izyum.

Some of the remains exhumed, he said, contained children and people who were likely tortured before dying.

Mr Zelensky posted a photo of the exhumation alongside the words: “The whole world should see this. A world where there should be no cruelty and no terrorism. But all of that is there. And his name is Russia.”

“Russia leaves behind only death and suffering. Murderer. Torturer.”

Oleg Synegubov, head of the Kharkiv regional administration, said: “There are several corpses with their hands tied behind their backs and one person is buried with a rope around his neck. Among the bodies exhumed today, 99 percent showed signs of a violent death.”

Many of the bodies pulled from the ground were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to tell if there were any signs of torture.

Reporters could not independently verify these details and only saw a body with its hands behind its back, but could not confirm if it was bound.

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Members of the Ukrainian emergency services carry a body

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Friday it would send a team to Izyum to investigate allegations of Ukrainian massacres.

The newly liberated and shocked residents of Izyum have begun to describe the six months they spent under Russian occupation, which amounted to ‘prison’.

Anton Chernyshov, 31, who was briefly detained by Russian troops, showed where he stood on top of the mountain to pick up a bar of phone signal.

“We lived like in prison during the occupation”

The Russians only gave them access to Moscow-sanctioned radio stations and newspapers, and the only news they received was that Putin’s offensive was faltering.

The people of Izyum bear the scars of the brutal struggle here. Mr Kolesnyk says several people in his neighborhood have been arrested and tortured on suspicion of collaborating with the Ukrainian military.

“We lived like in prison during the occupation. I avoided any contact with them because I heard about torture from people on the street, I saw my acquaintances with broken noses, bruises on their hands.

“I asked them, ‘What happened, guys?’ And they said I was: ‘Na pidvali,'” he said, using a colloquial term to describe a place of torture and interrogation in the occupied territories.

But even in the darkest of days, the people of the city held on to hope.

“I had no doubts that Ukrainian fighters would come back for us,” added Mr. Kolesnyk. “Never.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/pay-us-said-the-russian-soldiers-or-we-will-dump-their-bodies-in-the-woods-41997375.html “Pay us,” the Russian soldiers said, “or we’ll throw their bodies into the forest.”

Fry Electronics Team

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