KOZACHA LOPAN – There are still bodies on the battlefield where they fell, in farm fields or in burned tanks, as Ukrainian troops swept through Russian-occupied territory in a major counteroffensive this month.
In this northeastern corner of Ukraine, the Russian army has been pushed back across the border with Russia after holding the area for months. But artillery shells are still whistling through the air, fired from inside Russia and landing with resounding thuds and billows of black smoke on the territory of Ukraine.
Despite the shelling, a small group of soldiers winds its way along a mangled path to the spot where a dead Ukrainian fighter lies, spotted by a drone used to search for bodies and shallow graves.
“This is a risk. We are constantly risking our lives and at any moment a projectile may fly from the territory of Russia,” said Vital, commander of the National Guard, whose soldiers are searching for the bodies of soldiers from both sides, and he asked to be named only for security reasons.
The dead Ukrainian is lying on his back in a bulletproof vest and helmet, with a cap underneath to block the sun. The body had been lying there for a long time.
They document the scene and collect the remains in a body bag before heading further down the track to a charred Russian tank. Only one of the team is enough to carry out the body bag containing the remains of the Russian found inside.
Then there will be autopsies, and details of the locations will be recorded and handed over to investigators investigating possible war crimes, Vital said.
The nearest village of Kazachaya Lopan, the outskirts of which is less than two kilometers (a little more than a mile) from the Russian border, was recaptured by Ukrainian forces on September 11.
Vital said the team is also looking for graves of possible victims of what authorities believe was a makeshift prison where inmates were abused.
In the dank basement behind the local supermarket, metal bars enclose the corner of the room, forming a large chamber. Dirty sleeping bags and blankets show three sleepers on sheets of styrofoam to insulate from the damp bare floor. In the corner, two black buckets served as toilets.
A few meters (yards) from the barred cell, there are three dilapidated chairs around the table, cigarette butts and empty pumpkin seed husks are lying on the floor.
In a statement published on Saturday on its Telegram channel, the prosecutor’s office of the Kharkiv region, in whose jurisdiction Kazachaya Lopan is located, reported that the premises were used as a torture chamber during the occupation of the area by Russian troops.
Prosecutors said Russian troops had established a local police force to run the prison, adding that documents proving the operation of the police department and torture devices had been confiscated. The statement said an investigation is underway.
Allegations of what happened in the room cannot be independently verified.
Burials were found in some areas where the Russian troops were pushed back, primarily in the city of Izyum, where, according to the Ukrainian authorities, more than 440 graves were found near the city cemetery. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that they have the bodies of civilian adults and children, as well as military personnel with signs of violent death, some possibly from torture.
All over this border zone, where fierce fighting took place, villages bear the devastating scars of war: bombed and burned houses, roads in funnels from mortar bursts, broken cars lying by the roadside.
A few days after the expulsion of the Russians, local residents returned to see what was left of their homes.
“Three days before we decided to leave, it was like hell here” from all the shooting, says 56-year-old Larisa Lyatyukha from the nearby village of Prudyanka. “It flew from everywhere. It whistled and exploded. We hid in the basement and… our door was broken in.”
She left with her family in April and returned to check on her property a few days after Ukrainian soldiers retook the village.
“I saw horror. I still can’t get my hands on it,” she said, recounting her first glimpse of what was left of her home. “We have lived here all our lives. They built, repaired. Our whole lives have been invested here.”
The windows are broken, and the ceiling is leaking, where a stain is missing from the explosion. The house, which the parents built on the same plot, is missing the entire back part. Shards and debris littered the house.
“Our houses are cozy, even though we live in the village,” Lyatyukha said. “It’s a horror. I don’t even know when we will repair and rebuild it all.”
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