Rows of crosses lined the forest, surrounded by the unmistakable smell of death.
Each makeshift wooden marker protruded from a mound of earth where a body had been buried.
Some showed the names of the deceased, but the majority only wore numbers because the identities were unknown.
Police detectives and forensic experts have embarked on the difficult process of exhuming the remains mass cemetery on the outskirts of the newly liberated city of Izyum.
They said it contained more than 440 men, women and children, all civilians, as well as a mass grave with at least 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
The discovery was only possible after Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops out of Izyum last week, allowing police and other officials to penetrate.
Dressed in light blue plastic overalls and armed with shovels, one team was tasked with exhuming the dead.
They, in turn, set to work on one of the rows of shallow graves, carefully removing the sandy soil so that each body could be retrieved.
Many of the dead appeared to have been dumped without even the dignity of a coffin.
The cause of any death will take some time to document, but officials said they believed some of the victims died from Russian artillery and air raids during the past nearly seven months of war.
They said others had been shot.
There is also a suspicion of torture.
A top prosecutor said the first body recovered had a rope around its neck and showed signs of a “violent death”.
“I’ve worked at the prosecutor’s office for 20 years and this is the first time in my life I’ve ever seen something like this,” said Oleksandr Filchakov, visiting the crime scene in the forest, located next to a real cemetery.
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Journalists were also given access on Friday.
Several bodies were seen, either being lifted off the ground or lying in body bags.
Serhii Bolvinov, the top police investigator for the Kharkiv region, said local gravediggers buried the bodies during the Russian occupation.
Where a victim’s identity was not known, it was recorded in a book along with any specific details about the person, such as gender, he said.
Researchers now have the record book, which contains all the people buried at the site.
The lead researcher said the total number was now estimated at 445.
In addition, at least 17 Ukrainian soldiers were buried in a single mass grave, also at the site, according to police.
“This is terrible,” Bolvinov said, as he inspected the civilian mass cemetery.
“It is very painful for us… This place only came into existence because of the (Russian) aggressor… I am lost for words.”
Once extracted from the ground, civilian bodies were placed in body bags. Soldiers’ bodies were also bagged, but on the other side of a dirt road.
They will be chased away for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
DNA samples will also be taken to enable researchers to verify identities and find out who is in the anonymous graves – a herculean task.
The chief prosecutor said the work would be done as soon as possible, but he stressed that it was a process that could not be rushed due to the need to be thorough and forensic.
When asked whether international prosecutors were also involved, given the magnitude of the challenge, he said: “Of course our international partners are helping us.
“They are involved in our groups. They are now working in Izyum.”
The cemetery was also a Russian military position, with holes dug in the earth to hold tanks and other weapons. There also appeared to be a fortified trench for troops.
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Across the road was a row of houses.
A resident who witnessed the occupation said locals were prohibited from entering the forest area.
Serhii Cherniak, 61, said this changed as Russian tanks and artillery moved further back – although still during the occupation.
He said he ventured to collect some wood and saw the mass grave for Ukrainian soldiers.
He damned the local gravediggers.
“They didn’t even cover them (the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers) with bags,” he said.
“They were just dumped like they were dogs. It’s not even a grave, it was a ditch the Russians had used to park one of their vehicles. They came up, threw them down and sprinkled (the sand ).”