It was clear to Vitaly that he needed to start digging graves soon after learning that the Russian army was entering his country last February.
Although he expected bloodshed and conflict, nothing could prepare him for the raw brutality of Putin’s forces and their willingness to set aside their humanity for the sake of more Ukrainian territory.
The old man, who did not take on the role of city gravedigger lightly, said: “When there was no bombing, we dug and buried.” When there were bombings, we left.
‘Cluster projectiles, rocket launchers, everything, they were just shooting, knowing that there was no one from the army in these buildings, they just hit the civilian population. Just a mass murder of people.’
Within days of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Vitaly’s city of Izium was invaded by Russian forces, who indiscriminately attacked civilian targets.
Vitaly buried 451 bodies, almost all of them Ukrainian civilians, in a small forest on the outskirts of the city. Many were found with signs of torture and several with gunshot wounds.
Russian troops fired indiscriminately at civilian targets when they took Izium.
Vitaly helped bury 451 people, mostly Ukrainian citizens, in a forest near Izium.
The bodies were exhumed last fall after Ukraine regained the territory.
But the speed at which the bodies piled up and the brutal way in which they were killed means that many of them have not yet been identified.
“There were a lot of unknown people, there were a lot of unknown remains,” he said.
After Russian forces were expelled from the region last fall, investigators exhumed between 50 and 60 bodies a day, and Ukraine’s security service is now hunting down the Russian troops who committed the sickening war crimes in Izium.
An investigating officer said: “What the Russian military has done is against humanity, against Ukraine, against Ukrainians, and could be called genocide.”
The security services seek to clarify what happened to civilians in the region.
Two service officials have been searching for relatives and possible DNA matches to those who were buried in the Izium forest, in an attempt to provide closure for the thousands of people in the city who lost loved ones, including Halyana Zhykhareva.
451 bodies were buried in a forest near Izium, northeastern Ukraine, after Russian forces occupied the region.
Many bodies were not identified, leaving many in Izium not knowing what happened to their loved ones.
The great-grandmother lost several members of her family, including two girls aged six and nine, when a 500kg bomb leveled the apartment block in which they lived.
’52 people died. My whole family was there.’ he said quietly.
Their bodies lay in the rubble for months before they could be recovered and given makeshift burials, and only now has she been able to bury them with dignity.
The search for the perpetrators of the long-running Izium massacre is being documented in a new film, The Grave.
Allie Wharf, who produced and directed The Grave, said: “This war is unlike many others I have covered.
‘In many cities far from the front line, Ukrainians are trying to live a ‘normal’ life, to rebuild while things are destroyed, but terror, sadness, pain, anger and despair are just below the surface.
“Witnessing the bravery and professionalism of my young colleagues in Ukraine has been an exceptional experience in my film career and hearing from them that the act of filming, working and reporting on the suffering of their country has saved them from despair is a testimony to the power of that company.’
The documentary, which will air on ITV1 on November 6 at 10.45pm, comes as it marks 20 months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and hundreds of alleged war crimes have been documented.
The bodies of Izium residents remained under the rubble for months before they could be recovered.
Halyana Zhykhareva (pictured) lost several members of her family, including her great-granddaughters, aged six and nine.
Earlier this week, the BBC reported that nine people, including two young children, were shot dead in their home in the Russian-occupied town of Volnovakha.
Ukrainian officials believe Russian soldiers killed the entire Kapkanets family on Friday for not handing over their home.
Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said Monday that “the bloody hands of the Russians were involved” in the Volnovakha murders.
“According to preliminary information, the occupiers killed the entire Kapkanets family, who was celebrating a birthday and had refused to hand over their house to the Chechen occupiers,” he said on Telegram.
Both Russia and Ukraine are investigating the horrific incident.
The conflict, the bloodiest on European soil in decades, has left hundreds of thousands of soldiers wounded and dead on both sides.
He Wall Street Journal reported in August that up to 50,000 amputations were necessary for Ukrainian civilians and soldiers.
By contrast, 41,000 British soldiers had to be amputated during the entire First World War.
Doctors in Ukraine blamed Russia’s heavy use of the landmines it placed on its front lines, as well as heavy use of artillery and missiles.