SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ukraine's counteroffensive continues to move eastward, but as the country retakes thousands of square miles of territory, troops have made some grim discoveries. On the outskirts of the recently liberated city of Izium, investigators have found what Ukrainian officials call a mass grave. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf was there and joins us now. Kat, thanks for being with us.
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey there.
SIMON: Certainly, we want to keep in mind there might be young and sensitive ears listening. Please tell us what you've seen.
LONSDORF: Yeah, it was a pretty surreal scene. We were out in the woods next to a city cemetery, and this was in an area that had recently been controlled by Russians until, honestly, just a few days ago. So there was active demining going on by the Ukrainians, so there were these big booms punctuating the otherwise somber silence. And as my team and I walked through the trees, we came across rows and rows of handmade wooden crosses. And there were a bunch of workers wearing PPE, digging out each grave, one by one, exhuming each body, examining them, putting them into body bags. And I have to tell you, the smell was pretty overwhelming. There were a few dozen bodies dug up when I was there, but investigators expect there may be as many as 500.
SIMON: Kat, what are Ukrainian investigators looking for?
LONSDORF: Well, they're trying to identify all the bodies, but they're also looking for cause of death. They're taking meticulous documentation, especially to find any possible evidence of war crimes. I talked to the lead war crime prosecutor there, and he told me that they've already found evidence that could amount to that. And I can tell you, Scott, that I personally saw at least one body with their hands tied behind their back, for example. This burial site was essentially a makeshift graveyard for civilians during occupation. So basically, whenever anyone in the city died, they would bury them here.
And I want to just be clear. Investigators won't say yet who ran the site, but this wasn't a dumping ground for bodies. It was respectfully created. I talked with one older man who was there who said his wife was buried there. He was with her when she died during an aerial assault. And he said he had to pay the Russians a good amount of money to just allow him to bury her here. It seems like, though, people in the town were burying anyone who died here, any civilian, and a lot of those people were either unknown or unrecognizable because of the way they died. So they were buried without being identified.
SIMON: What does the city of Izium look like today?
LONSDORF: Yeah, the city is just absolutely destroyed. The Russians took the city on March 1, so that's less than a week after the invasion began. And then they made it the hub for their operations in the area. Residents didn't have much time at all to flee, so thousands of people were living there under occupation for the past months. They've mostly been without electricity during that time, generally without running water. And there were no communications, no cell phone. Internet was all jammed up. There was one radio station, but it was Russian propaganda. I talked to one woman, 36-year-old Oksana Kochura. She was waiting in line for humanitarian aid in the city center, and she was with her two small daughters, aged 8 and 13. And she told me they'd waited out the whole war living like this, but it had taken a toll on her kids, of course.
OKSANA KOCHURA: (Non-English language spoken).
LONSDORF: She told me the youngest one, the 8-year-old, was pretty much crying all the time, begging them to leave. But of course they couldn't, and they rarely even left the house. So while everyone I talked to seemed very relieved that the town was back in Ukrainian hands, I should say, they've been told that they shouldn't expect to have heat working by the winter. So the hard times are not over yet for the people there, I'm afraid.
SIMON: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf, thank you so much.
LONSDORF: Thanks, Scott.
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