“People died in families.” Survivors of liberated Izium recount the devastating air raid

Kiev, Ukraine

Mykhailo Yatsentiu left the basement to make tea for his grandson when the bomb went off. When he came to his senses half an hour later, the entire central part of his block of flats had been destroyed; The basement where he was sheltering with his family and neighbors caught fire.

The Ukrainian government said 54 people died on March 9 in the apartment complex No. 2 on Pershotravneva Street in Izium, nearly half of the building’s residents. Entire families were killed in the attack, including the Yatsentiuks, Kravchenkos and Stolpakovas.

Their fates were unknown until a few weeks ago when counter-offensive Ukrainian forces retook Izium after six months of Russian occupation, revealing a mass burial site on the outskirts of the city.

2 Most of the residents of Pershotravneva were buried there among the more than 400 graves, apart from a few with numbers daubed on rough wooden crosses.

After speaking with a survivor, former neighbors and family members, and reviewing photos and videos taken after the attack and the liberation of the town, CNN can now tell what happened that day at 2 Pershotravneva Street.

All that remained of the block of flats were two towers on one side and the other, with a smoldering pile of rubble in the middle.

A month later, after the liberation of Izium, Dmytro Lubinets, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Ukrainian Parliament, stood in front of the ruins and declared that the deaths of those killed there are “part of a genocide” as a result of an air strike by Russian troops. Ukrainian nation”.

Local residents say that after the airstrike, Russian forces attacked the building with tanks and were firing across the river.

When the smoke cleared, walls, floors and ceilings were torn away, revealing the homes of the people who had lived there. Many of them were now dead, buried in their basement where they had taken refuge.

Yatsentiu lost seven members of his family that day: his wife Natalia, aunt Zinaida, daughter Olga (also known as diminutive Olya) Kravchenko and her husband Vitaly Kravchenko, 15-year-old son Dima, 10-year-old Oleksii and 3-year-old. -Older daughter Arishka, grandson Yatsentiu had gone to make tea.

“I started shouting Olya, Natasha, Vitaly… No one answered,” he said. “When I went upstairs [to the ground floor], I sat down and started crying, screaming. Oh God.”

A picture taken by survivor Mykhailo Yatsentiu on September 30 shows the ruins of his former home at Pershotravneva 2.

Izium is a small pre-war town of over 40,000 inhabitants, where primary school classmates become lifelong friends and families live in the same building for generations. Anastasiia Vodorez and Elena (Lena) Stolpakova grew up together.

Vodorez describes the Stolpakova family as “very happy and close”. “Friends always gathered at their place because we had a lot of fun there,” he told CNN from the Czech Republic, where he has lived for the past four years.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Lena’s friends asked her to leave Izium, but her father Aleksander refused to leave the house at 2 Pershotravneva street. When the friends found out that Lena’s house had fallen due to the bombings, they decided that “until we find her, she was alive for us”.

Recovery efforts began in late March; The first bodies were recovered less than a month after the attack. “It was clear then that people died in families,” said Tetiana Pryvalykhina, another resident of 2 Pershotravneva, who left the city but lost her “religious” mother, Liubov Petrova, in the air raid.

Liubov Petrova, center, pictured with her family in 2018 at 2 Pershotravneva Street.

Instead of the basement that had been used as a bomb shelter, there was now a crater. “People were crushed, my mother was crushed,” Pryvalykhina said.

Local rescue workers worked under Russian occupation forces to find and bury the bodies. Pryvalykhina’s sister Victoria went to the site every day in hopes of finding her mother. “People were faceless. It was very difficult to admit. They took the bodies without heads, they took the arms and legs separately,” Pryvalykhina recalled her sister telling her.

The Stolpakova family was finally found in May. “The whole family was in the basement: Lena, her husband Dima, their two daughters [Olesya and Sasha], Lena’s parents Aleksander (Sasha) and Tania, Lena’s younger sister Masha, and Lena’s grandmother Liuda were also there,” Vodorez said. The only member of the family was Lena’s other grandmother, Galia, who lived across town.

All but 12 people who died in that apartment building were buried in a pine forest near the town, according to Yatsentiuk. Many families said they could not afford to rebury or visit the graves of their loved ones while the city was under Russian occupation.

New Year's party 2022 at Elena Stolpakov's house, 2 Pershotravneva.  In the picture, from left to right, Elena, Dima, Anastasiia Vodorez and Anastasia's sister Оksana.  This is the last photo they took together.

Before it was destroyed by bombs, 2 Pershotravneva was a building known in the village for its sense of community and manicured flower beds. It was a place where the younger generation barbecued and the older generation gathered to chat.

“The house was always full of children’s laughter, there were always many children in the playground,” Pryvalykhina recalled of her former home.

She left Izium with her daughter on March 4, five days before the airstrike that killed her mother. For more than 30 years, Petrova has wanted to leave her home. It was one of the last to be recovered from the wreckage.

Most graves in mass burials are marked with simple wooden crosses; a few put flowers or wreaths.

The graves of the Stolpakova family were among the few with names and dates of birth and death inscribed on them. Liubov Petrova’s grave is marked only with the number 283. Others can remain anonymous forever.

A memorial to those killed in Pershotravneva 2 is pictured on September 30.

Yatsentiu left Izium in April after burying his family, but has since been visiting on a humanitarian mission. Even though the Ukrainians are now in control, there is still no electricity in the city and people there lack basic supplies like food and medicine.

Stopped on September 30 2 Pershotravneva. By then, the debris had been cleared. All that remained were the skeletons of the two towers and the flower beds that held memorials to the people who died here.

“I visited my house several times,” he said. “This time I stood up and prayed.”