Mykhailo Yatsentiuk left the basement to make tea for his granddaughter when the bomb struck. When he came to his senses half an hour later, the entire area in the middle of his apartment building had been destroyed. The basement where he took refuge with his family and neighbors was engulfed in flames.
The Ukrainian government said that on March 9, 54 people, almost half of the building’s residents, died in the apartment complex on 2 Pershotravneva Street in Izium, eastern Ukraine. Entire families were killed in the attack, including Yatsentiuks, Kravchenkos and Stolpakovas.
Their fate remained largely unknown until a few weeks ago, when Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive after six months of Russian occupation to take back Izium and uncover a massive cemetery on the outskirts of the city.
2 Most of Pershotravneva’s inhabitants are buried in the more than 400 tombs there, with few identifying marks other than numbers daubed on rough wooden crosses.
After speaking with a survivor, former residents and family members, and reviewing photos and videos taken after the attack and after the town’s liberation, CNN can now tell what happened at 2 Pershotravneva that day.
Only two towers remained of the apartment building, with a pile of smoking rubble in the middle.
A few months later, after the liberation of Izium, the human rights commissioner of the Ukrainian parliament, Dmitro Rubinets, stood in front of the ruins and declared that the deaths of those who died there “as a result of air strikes by Russian troops” were ” Part of the Genocide of Ukraine”. Ukrainian nation. ”
After the airstrike, Russian troops fired on the building from across the river with tanks, local residents said.
After the smoke cleared, walls, floors and ceilings were torn away, revealing the homes of the people who once lived there. Many of them are now dead and buried in basements where they took refuge.
Yatsentiuk lost seven of his family members that day – his wife Natalia, aunt Zinaida, daughter Olga (also known as little Olya) Kravchenko and her husband Vitaly Kravchenko, their sons Dima, 15, Oleksii, 10 and Their 3-year-old-old-old daughter, Ariska, and their grandson, Asentiuc, went to make tea.
“I started yelling for Oria, Natasha, Vitali…no one answered,” he said. “When I went upstairs [to the ground floor], I sat down and started crying and screaming. Omg. ”
Before the war, Izium was a small town with a population of more than 40,000. Primary school classmates were lifelong friends, and the family lived together for generations. Anastasiia Vodorez grew up with Elena (Lena) Stolpakova.
Vodorez described the Stolpakovas as a “very happy, tight-knit” family. “Friends always gather at their place because we have a lot of fun there,” she told CNN in the Czech Republic, where she has lived for the past four years.
Friends urged Lena to leave Izium when Russia began to invade Ukraine, but her father Alexander refused to leave their home on 2 Pershotravneva Street. When friends learned that Lena’s house had collapsed due to shelling, they decided “she won’t live for us until we find her”.
Recovery began at the end of March; the first bodies were pulled less than a month after the attack. “Obviously, people died in the family,” said Tetiana Pryvalykhina, another resident of 2 Pershotravneva, who left the city but lost her “devout” mother Liubov Petrova in the airstrike.
The basement they used to use as a bomb shelter is now a crater. “People were ripped to shreds, my mother was ripped to shreds,” Privaresina said.
Local rescuers, led by occupying Russian troops, searched for and buried the bodies. Pryvalykhina’s sister Victoria goes to the site every day to find her mother. “People were expressionless. It was hard to recognize. They brought out the dead body, arms and legs, respectively,” Pryvalykhina recalled what her sister told her.
The Stolpacova family was finally found in May. “The whole family is in the basement: Lena, her husband Dima and their two daughters [Olesya and Sasha]Lena’s parents Alexander (Sasha) and Tania, Lena’s sister Martha, and Lena’s grandmother Lyuda,” said Valdores. The only surviving member of the family is another of Lena’s Grandmother Galia, she lives in the town.
All but 12 of those who died in that apartment building were buried in a mass grave in a pine forest near the town, according to Yatsentiuk. Many families said they were not allowed to rebury or visit the graves of their loved ones while the city was under Russian occupation.
Before being destroyed by a falling bomb, 2 Pershotravneva was a building known for its sense of community and well-preserved flower beds. This is where the younger generation holds barbecues and the older generation gathers and chats.
“The house was always full of laughter from children, there were always a lot of children on the playground,” Privaresina recalled of her former home.
On March 4, just five days before the airstrike killed her mother, she left Izium with her daughter. Petrova does not want to leave her home of more than 30 years. She was one of the last to be pulled from her wreckage.
Most graves in mass graves are marked with ordinary wooden crosses; a few have flowers or wreaths on them.
The Stolpakova family graves are among the few with names and dates of birth and death written on them. Liubov Petrova’s grave is only marked with the number 283. Others may remain anonymous forever.
Yatsentiuk left Izium after burying his family in April, but has since gone on a humanitarian mission. Although Ukrainians now regain control of the city, the city remains without electricity and people there lack basic supplies such as food and medicine.
On September 30, he stopped at 2 Pershotravneva. By then, the rubble had been cleared away. All that remains are the skeletons of the two towers and the flowerbeds where the memorials to the dead are located.
“I’ve been to my house a few times,” he said. “This time I’m just standing and praying.”