“This is where we dug up the bodies.” Romas Eesalu (36) has a reddish beard and a yellow cap. He stands next to what is left of a five-storey flat on the outskirts of Izhum. The building was ripped in half in half and collapsed. About forty residents who took shelter in the basement died there at the beginning of March. The eastern Ukrainian town was then surrounded by Russian troops. During the shelling, 80 percent of all buildings were damaged. Izhum was liberated in mid-September. The discovery of what initially appeared to be a mass grave, containing 447 bodies, shocked the world. This seemed to be a second ‘Butsha’, a reference to the war crimes committed near Kiev. Oleg Kotenko, the Ukrainian commissioner for ‘missing persons under special circumstances’ later nuanced this. ” People are buried here, shall we say, more civilized than in Butsha ,” he said. For example, by Romas Eesalu. He was one of the Ukrainians who, during the occupation, took the bodies to the makeshift cemetery in the forest, under the watchful eye of Russian soldiers and in exchange for food. Now he worries that he could be seen as a collaborator for that reason. Romas Easalu comforts a resident of Izum Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin Group 200 Romas was part of ‘Group 200’ – named after the Soviet military code number for dead soldiers. The squad pulled people out from under the rubble, dug holes and covered the bodies, numbered and in plastic bags, with soil. Wooden crosses were placed on the graves. From the end of March until the end of June, Romas reported to the pedestrian bridge over the river Siversky Donets for work at 8 a.m. every morning. Weekends didn’t exist. Each volunteer could take one week off. At checkpoints, members of the group were checked, sometimes also having to undress to show that they had no pro-Ukrainian tattoos. Also look at this photo series about Izhum: torture chambers, scars and hundreds of deaths Under the flat torn in two, Romas found the body of one of his colleagues, who worked in the town hall before the war. The woman, Lyudmilla Sergeevna, died with her husband, their son and his girlfriend in the basement of her home. “We put the bodies there,” Romas points to a patch of asphalt in front of a remaining entrance. “Family or neighbors could come and see if they recognized anyone. As soon as it was clear who someone was, we took the body in the car and took it to the cemetery.” This residential building was probably hit by a Russian plane bomb in early March. Dozens of residents were hiding in the basement. Group 200 and the state emergency service have retrieved and recovered about forty bodies from under the rubble. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin The graves of unidentified war victims are marked with wooden crosses. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin The destroyed bridge of Izyum Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin A former Russian checkpoint in liberated Izyum. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin An Orthodox priest walks with a tinkling orb of incense along the graves in the coniferous forest. Although most of the pits are now empty, the sweet smell of decomposition still lingers among the trees. Work in the cemetery was tense, because Russian soldiers were stationed right next to them and were regularly fired upon. “We once hid in the sand there when we were bombed from above,” Romas says. Through the forest rustles a sound that sounds like a metal whiplash. Then again, and again, for a minute. Ukrainian bystanders – without military training but now a civilian specialist – suspect that a Grad-type rocket launcher is being fired further down the road. The speed with which the Ukrainian armed forces are clearing the area has slowed somewhat, but progress is still being made. Last weekend, 50 kilometers southeast of Izyum, the next important logistics hub for the Russian army, Lyman , was liberated. Also read: Putin has now burned all the ships behind him Izhum local police station where detained civilians were tortured Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin Izhum local police station where detained civilians were tortured Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin Izhum local police station where detained civilians were tortured Photos Kostyantyn Chernichkin canned fish Romas did the work for ‘Group 200’ as a volunteer, but not out of idealism. “How should I say it,” says Romas. “I stood in line for humanitarian aid on March 20. A Ukrainian came. He said they needed people to clear debris in exchange for food. I had to feed my family. We had absolutely nothing left and could have starved.” At first he was fed two or three times a week. “There was canned meat in the bag. Macaroni. Spaghetti. Canned fish. Sometimes cleaning products were included. Sometimes tea, but not always,” says Romas. Meanwhile, the police in Izhum are hunting collaborators. The head of the local police, Oleh Tkachenko, does not want to say much about it, but reluctantly says that “about a hundred” people are being held on suspicion of colluding with the enemy. Romas fears that his work at the cemetery could be misinterpreted. Tkachenko says the limit for collaboration is getting paid – and that accepting food is not a crime. Romas, however, is not reassured. Residents of Izyum receive emergency aid Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin What doesn’t help Romas is that some members of the squad have left for Russia. According to him for practical reasons. One of the colleagues injured his legs and was taken to a hospital “somewhere in Russia”. Two others have left because they have lost their home. Romas has heard that volunteers from his group had been questioned and taken away. He does not know for sure: information is a scarce commodity in the city. There is not always a telephone connection and certainly not everywhere. Internet no longer works. Anyway, Romas wants to get out of Izhum as soon as possible. “You do realize that after all this I can’t live here anymore. Now when I walk through the city, near those places. Then I can’t help but think of who was excavated there. How someone lay there. The whole center is littered with places like that.” In the evening he sees the faces of his dead fellow citizens in his mind. “It’s not a big city, I’ve lived here all my life, which means I knew a lot of the victims.” Residents of Izyum try to get a signal on Kremenets Hill, the highest point in the Kharkiv region, to call their relatives. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 5, 2022