IZIUM, Ukraine — The first time Russian soldiers forced their way into the home that 26-year-old Sergei shared with his elderly father, the troops inspected their phones and threatened to “take them to the basement,” referring to a nearby torture chamber, if they found anything they didn’t like. They questioned Sergei’s loyalty to Ukraine and asked him endlessly about his knowledge of partisans in the city.
Every time Sergei subsequently left his house in Izium, a city in eastern Ukraine, he had to show his passport and again pass whatever loyalty test the presiding officer had settled on. It was a moving target -- one day, it might include a full body check for patriotic tattoos, the next a phone search for any suspicious content related to the war or Ukraine, and the next questions about whether he was thankful to his Russian saviors for his freedom from the “Ukrainian Nazis.”
Residents would receive a knock on the door followed by multiple interrogations if neighbors sympathetic to Russia said they had committed even so simple an offense as owning a Ukrainian flag, or other signs of national allegiance.
Day after day, they made the perilous journey through checkpoint after checkpoint just to fetch water from the nearby Dnieper River, a lifeline after the city’s water system was cut in the early days of Russian occupation, along with electricity and phone reception.
Information was hard to come by; residents knew they were now under Russian control, but didn’t know about the growing success of Ukrainian forces or the fate of the rest of their country.
Russian soldiers had begun marching into the outskirts of Izium in northeast Donetsk on March 5 after intense shelling, ultimately declaring total victory over the city that serves as a key regional rail and logistics hub by the end of the month. Russian-installed officials quickly instituted martial law to control the remaining residents. With city services damaged from the shelling and never repaired, Izium’s remaining residents were cast into the dark for the next five months until liberating Ukrainian forces arrived on Sept. 10.
For that half-year, Russian troops imposed their will on the residents in a campaign of crime and terror driven by a lack of discipline by Russian forces that likely resulted in war crimes, according to Ukrainian forces and investigators. Reports of soldiers ransacking towns, even video from inside stores being looted by those in uniform, have become widely shared on social media.
But the toll occupation took on residents, and the apparent commonality that suggests an active plan by Russian leadership to harm those under their control, is just beginning to become clear.
“They are just convicts, snitches and filthy bums,” said Sergei, who was born and raised in Izium. He decided not to evacuate when the occupation was imminent, because his father’s health was rapidly declining when the full-scale war started this year, he said, and he couldn’t leave him behind.
Survivors from Izium have reported experiencing random interrogations, kidnapping, torture and other forms of aggression at the hands of Russian occupying forces along with the looting of their belongings and livelihoods.
These accounts are eerily similar to the testimonies of survivors from other liberated towns in the region and across the country, lending weight to the concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using such violence systematically as a part of the country’s overall strategy to control and demoralize the civilian population in newly occupied areas and beyond.
That violence has included deliberately striking civilian targets and committing acts of torture, sexual violence and forced imprisonment of the occupied population, according to international investigators.
"Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” announced Erik Mose, the head of an investigative team organized by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, tasked with promoting and protecting human rights globally, in late September.
The months-long OHCHR investigation looked into humanitarian crimes, including war crimes, in four Ukrainian regions—Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy—between late February and March of this year, and was based on interviews with residents who survived Russian occupation.
Another ongoing OHCHR investigation found that there was significant evidence that both sides had tortured or killed prisoners of war, though cases against Russian soldiers significantly outnumbered those against Ukrainian troops.
And last month, Ukrainian investigators based in Kyiv announced that there was mounting proof of the systematic use of sexual violence against civilians by Russian troops with the knowledge and possibly encouragement of commanding officers – another basis for the prosecution of war crimes.
In Izium, the evidence of war crimes was everywhere on a recent visit. While the townspeople had been kept isolated from news for so long that Ukrainian troops who liberated the town were asked questions like, “Is Zelenskyy still president?” and, “Who won the Champions League?”, some information was well-known to all -- like the location of the town’s mass gravesite.
More than 440 bodies of civilians and soldiers were exhumed from shallow graves in a forest outside the town after liberation, expanding a small existing cemetery as far as the eye could see with Orthodox crosses often marked with only a single number to denote the growing death toll. Gravediggers reportedly worked around the clock to bury the dead, and coffins became hard to come by.
With the majority of buildings in Izium and neighboring towns in ruins, most who remain expect to face the winter’s increasingly cold nights in homes without glass in their window frames, fractured roofs or decimated doors. They are used to cooking on open fires in their courtyards – a necessity for the months of Russian rule.
Despite the relief felt by many now free from Russian forces, most essential services have yet to be restored in the besieged town due to the extent of the damage and a shortage of available tradesmen and supplies to complete the necessary repairs.
But the destruction wrought by Russian troops went far beyond the town’s infrastructure.
“They beat the s**** out of my neighbor,” Sergei said. When asked if there was a cause, “No reason,” he said. “I asked him that question as well. He said he wondered the same thing, too.”
Russian forces “are waging war according to old books – the old manuals of the Soviet Union. The way they did mass offensives during World War II, with barrage fire and complete disregard for civilian lives – they are trying to do the same now,” said Judge, a deputy commander of the special forces regiment of the Kyiv police who helps investigate alleged war crimes carried out by either party anywhere on Ukrainian soil (he requested to be identified only by his nom de guerre, given concerns about his security).
Many Russian brigades lack discipline, he said, leading to high rates of troop desertion, capture by enemy forces and illegal behavior that can be charged as war crimes, according to international law.
Ukraine's prosecutor general has already reported more than 50,000 alleged cases of war crimes by Russian forces since Feb. 24.
Several reports have found that a growing proportion of Russian forces is made up of conscripts that were drafted in the last few months. With little training or desire to become combatants, many of these men are recruited from state prisons after being given the option of remaining behind bars or fighting for the patria in Ukraine. Multiple mercenary groups that are infamous for their brutal tactics and lawless behavior, most notably the PMC Wagner Group, have also joined Russian forces.
As the conflict stretches into its 11th month, the Kremlin has continued to deny any wrongdoing by its soldiers while also making bolder statements about its attacks and wartime strategy.
Russia’s defense ministry announced on Oct. 10, shortly after the country had directed a barrage of drone and missile strikes on cities across Ukraine in retaliation for a Ukrainian strike, that “all targets have been hit.” The “targets” -- a Kyiv playground and pedestrian bridge, several electrical plants and dozens of other non-military targets -- did little to impact the war effort.
President Joe Biden and other top government officials condemned the attacks, saying in a press release that they “demonstrate the utter brutality of Mr. Putin’s illegal war on the Ukrainian people” and will not deter the U.S. or its partners from continuing to support the beleaguered nation of Ukraine.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres also expressed deep “shock” at the attacks and said that “this constitutes another unacceptable escalation of the war and, as always, civilians are paying the highest price.”
For those still living in recently liberated areas, memories from enduring the winter earlier this year after the first shocking days of the Russian invasion and its early victories have begun creeping back as the winter sets in.
“War is war”, 61-year-old Maira said as she sat with her two friends in Izium’s main square one day a few weeks after liberation.
Maira remained in the city during occupation with her husband, because they had nowhere else to go, she said, and her son was already off fighting the war on the southern front. It was one of the hardest times of her life, she said.
“The Russians came to the house [of a neighbor] and made the people cook for them. [The Russians] made them eat first and waited 30 minutes to eat themselves, because they were afraid of being poisoned,” she said.
After liberation, she said, other neighbors she hadn’t seen for months told her about violent interrogations, kidnappings and torture sites where some acquaintances disappeared.
While Maira considered herself “lucky” that neither she nor her husband were hurt by the occupying troops, she knew of many stories of the less fortunate.
“All the locks have been torn off [by] the Russians,” she said, starting to cry. “They plundered – took everything. No windows or doors are left in our village. They broke everything they could… driving around all day and night drunk in their tanks. They destroyed every utility pole in the city, ran them over … so we have no electricity, no reception – nothing.”
But prosecution for war crimes is no easy task, said Marco Sassoli, an international law expert and professor at the University of Geneva who has investigated war crimes in Ukraine for the OSCE. Limitations built into the Geneva Conventions result in a small number of cases, especially of officials, getting tried in the International Criminal Court and even fewer convictions or meaningful sentences. A minority of the 50,000 cases of potential war crimes currently under investigation in Ukraine will most likely result in a perpetrator coming to justice.
And for now, justice is still a distant thought for many struggling to survive the cold season in devastated areas across the war-torn country.
“They destroyed our town and our lives,” said 72-year-old Viktor, another Izium resident, summarizing his experience under six months of Russian occupation.
“There’s no power, no heating, no water – it’s awful,” he said. “I don’t know how we’ll get through the winter.”