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Izium, Ukraine: Bodies at a newly discovered mass grave show evidence of war crimes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week's news about the Ukrainian army's successes in pushing back Russia marks a huge shift in the war. This counteroffensive took back thousands of miles of territory. Dozens of cities and villages were liberated after months of Russian occupation, including the city of Izium. But as Russia retreated, we have learned more about the reality of life for people there, people who have been without electricity or running water or communications for months. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf was in Izium reporting today. She is with us now. Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So I want to hear about Izium, a little bit about what it looks like and what people were telling you as you walked around and tried to talk to them.

LONSDORF: Yeah. Well, in the city, pretty much everything is destroyed. But there were residents around riding bikes and really wanting to talk. One woman called to me from her window.

VICTORIA BONDARENKA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She was shouting for me to come see how she's been living. So I took her up on it, and I went up to her fifth-floor apartment. Her name was Victoria Bondarenka. She's 58. She's been living there with her adult son. And her building used to have around 100 families in it, and now she says it has about 10 people total. They haven't had electricity since March, like you said, or running water. Now, the Ukrainians are trying to restore it all, but she's been told that there probably won't be any heat this winter.

BONDARENKA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: And she told me she's pretty much at her breaking point. You know, her hard times are really far from over.

KELLY: And speaking of hard times, what was her understanding of just these last six months, what she, what her country have lived through?

LONSDORF: Yeah. The one thing that was really interesting to me talking to her is that she told me, since they had no communication with the outside world - like you said, there was no cell phone, no internet; there was a Russian radio station that popped up, but it was all propaganda - she hadn't heard about the rest of the war in Ukraine at all. So she's just been catching up on all of it now in the past few days, listening to Ukrainian radio 24-7. And as you can imagine, it's been really overwhelming for her.

KELLY: Oh, wow. Yeah, I can't imagine, actually. Speaking of the unimaginable, I want to ask you about something that is very much in the headlines now - what Ukrainian officials are calling a mass grave site outside the city. You visited there today. What did you see?

LONSDORF: This was a pretty surreal scene. It was in the woods on the outskirts of town, near the city cemetery. There was a lot of demining going on, so there were all these loud booms in the distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS BURSTING)

LONSDORF: And the ground as you walked around was just laced with trenches and areas where Russian tanks had been parked just days before. There were hundreds of wooden crosses stuck in the ground, and each one was marking a grave. It was basically like a makeshift graveyard for what seems like hundreds of civilians who died during the fighting and the occupation. Each of the graves were numbered, and some were marked with names and dates. Others were not. So basically, this is where the townspeople were burying people as they died, even if they couldn't identify them.

But the thing is the Russians oversaw all those burials. So now Ukrainian investigators are exhuming every body looking for evidence of war crimes, documenting. When I was there today, it was almost hard to breathe because of the stench of all of these dead bodies that they were pulling up. And the investigators were finding things that could amount to war crimes. I personally saw one body with their hands tied behind their back, for example. The head war crimes prosecutor I talked to there said he hasn't seen anything like this in the 10 years he's been on the job.

KELLY: Oh, gosh. What are people there saying? Did the people you meet, were they aware of this gravesite? Were they walking around?

LONSDORF: Yeah. I talked to one older man there. His name was Hryhory Pryhodko. He's 72. He told me his wife, Ludmilla, is buried there. She was killed in shelling while they were out walking together. He told me he had to pay a good amount of money to the Russians for them to just allow him to bury her there. And while he didn't think she needed to be examined because he knew very well how she died, he said he did appreciate what was happening since there seem to be so many unidentified graves there.

HRYHORY PRYHODKO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: He told me, when you're born, you're given a name, and these people need names when they die.

KELLY: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf on what she found reporting today in Izium, Ukraine. Kat, thank you.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.