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Survivors of liberated Izium speak of devastating airstrike

(CNN) — Mykhailo Yatsentiuk came out of the cellar to make tea for his granddaughter and the bomb went off. When he came to his senses half an hour later, the entire central section of his apartment block had been destroyed; the basement where he had taken refuge with his family and neighbors was engulfed in flames.

The Ukrainian government says 54 people died at the apartment complex at 2 Pershotravneva Street in Izium, eastern Ukraine, on March 9, nearly half of the building’s residents. Entire families were killed in the attack, including the Yatsentiuks, Kravchenko and Stolpakova.

Their fates remained largely unknown until a few weeks ago when Ukrainian forces seeking a counteroffensive recaptured Izium after six months of Russian occupation, revealing a jagged mass grave on the outskirts of the city.

Most of the residents of Pershotravneva 2 were buried there among more than 400 graves, few with identification marks other than numbers painted on crude wooden crosses.

After speaking with a survivor, former residents, family members, reviewing photos and videos taken after the attack and after the city’s liberation, CNN is now able to tell the story of what happened at Pershotravneva 2 that day.

Only rubble remains between the two towers at Pershotravneva 2 in Izium, photographed on September 30. Several families sheltering in the basement below the central part of the building were killed. (Credit: Mykhailo Yatsentiuk)

“I started screaming… Nobody answered”

All that remained of the apartment block were two towers on either side with a pile of smoking rubble in the middle.

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

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

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

Yatsentiuk lost seven members of his family that day: his wife Natalia, his aunt Zinaida, his daughter Olga (also known by the diminutive Olya) Kravchenko and her husband Vitaly Kravchenko, their 15-year-old son Dima, 10-year-old Oleksii and their daughter 3-year-old Arishka, the granddaughter for whom Yatsentiuk had gone to make tea.

“I started screaming Olya, Natasha, Vitaly… No one answered,” he said. “When I got to the top [a la planta baja]I sat down and started crying, screaming. Oh God”.

An image taken by survivor Mykhailo Yatsentiuk on September 30 shows the remains of her former home at Pershotravneva 2. (Credit: Mykhailo Yatsentiuk)

“It was clear then that people died in families”

Izium, with a pre-war population of over 40,000, is a small town, the kind where elementary school classmates remain friends for life and families live in the same building for generations. Anastasiia Vodorez and Elena (Lena) Stolpakova grew up together.

Vodorez describes the Stolpakovas as a “very happy and close-knit” family. “Friends always met at his house, 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, friends urged Lena to leave Izium, but her father, Aleksander, refused to leave his house at 2 Pershotravneva Street. When the friends learned that Lena’s house had collapsed due to to the bombing, they decided that “until we found her, she was alive for us”.

Recovery efforts began in late March; the first bodies were removed just under a month after the attack. “Then it became clear that people were dying in families,” said Tetiana Pryvalykhina, another resident of Pershotravneva 2, who had left the town but lost her “deeply religious” mother, Liubov Petrova, in the airstrike.

Liubov Petrova, center, photographed with her family in 2018 at her home at 2 Pershotravneva Street. (Credit: Tetiana Pryvalykhina)

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

Local rescuers worked with the Russian occupation forces to find and bury the bodies. Pryvalykhina’s sister, Victoria, went to the site every day in the hope of finding her mother. “The people had no faces. It was very difficult to recognize. They took out the bodies without heads, they took out the arms and legs separately, ”Pryvalykhina remembers 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 y Sasha], Lena’s parents, Aleksander (Sasha) and Tania, Lena’s younger sister, Masha, and Lena’s grandmother, Liuda, too,” Vodorez said. The only surviving member of the family was Lena’s other grandmother, Galia, who lived across town.

All but 12 of the people who died in that apartment building were buried in a mass grave in a pine forest near the city, 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.

A New Year’s party 2022 at Elena Stolpakova’s house in Pershotravneva 2. In the picture, from left, Elena, Dima, Anastasiia Vodorez and Anastasiia’s sister Оksana. This is the last photo they took together. (Credit: Anastasia Vodorez)

Before it was destroyed by falling bombs, Pershotravneva 2 was a building known in the city for its sense of community and well-kept flower beds. It was a place where the younger generation would host barbecues and the older generation would gather for a chat.

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

She left Izium with her daughter on March 4, just five days before the airstrike that killed her mother. Petrova had not wanted to leave her home for more than 30 years. She was one of the last to be pulled from the remains of her.

“I stood up and prayed”

Most of the graves at the mass burial site are marked with simple wooden crosses; a few have flowers or wreaths on them.

The Stolpakova family tombs were some of the few with names and dates of birth and death written on them. Liubov Petrova’s grave is marked only with the number 283. Others may remain anonymous forever.

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On September 30, a memorial to the dead is displayed at Pershotravneva 2.

Yatsentiuk left Izium after burying his family in April, but has since been visiting on a humanitarian mission. Although the Ukrainians are back in control, there is still no electricity in the city and people lack basic supplies such as food and medicine.

He passed through Pershotravneva 2 on September 30. By then, the debris had been cleared away. All that remained were the remains of the two towers and flower beds with memorials for the people who died here.

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

CNN’s Teele Rebane reported from Hong Kong and Olga Voitovych from Kyiv.

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