IZIUM, Ukraine — More than a year after her mother died, Alla Kotliarova buried her for the third — and she hopes final — time.
There was no priest, no tearful neighbors, no ceremonial procession to the cemetery sitting among thin pine trees at the end of town. But there was at least some measure of closure for Kotliarova, 62, who laid her mother, Tamara Kotliarova, to rest in the family plot.
No official cause of death was listed, though her mother had long grappled with diabetes, but Kotliarova is convinced that the stress of the Russian invasion and occupation hastened her demise.
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“If it weren’t for this war, she wouldn’t have died,” said Kotliarova as she wiped tears from her eyes with a small handkerchief and placed flowers and snacks on the sandy funeral mound.
“But now she can finally rest in peace in her rightful place.”
The elder Kotliarova was first buried in her courtyard by her relatives, then reburied during the Russian occupation in an improvised graveyard on the edge of a forest. Once Izium was retaken, the forest graveyard and the 440 bodies buried there, including hers, were dug up by Ukrainian authorities for DNA analysis and autopsies, which in some cases took months.
The final burial ceremony was emblematic of the many ways in which the people of Izium, in northeastern Ukraine, are still struggling to overcome the devastation of Russian occupation, which lasted from March to September 2022. Although Ukrainian authorities have vowed to rebuild ravaged cities, a recent visit to Izium showed that the fallout from Russian brutality still feels fresh, as if it could have happened last week.
The deputy mayor, Volodymyr Matsokin, said Izium was among the most bombed cities in Ukraine, citing what he said were statistics from the country’s National Security and Defense Council. He was sitting in a temporary office because City Hall is still in ruins, though the flowers on the square out front were well tended.
“Eighty percent of multistory buildings and nonresidential buildings are damaged, along with 30% of private buildings,” he said.
As a gateway to the Donbas region, Izium held outsize military importance. It was badly destroyed even before Russian forces took it, leaving residents without electricity, water, internet or food for months. The months under occupation deepened the hardships.
The destruction left surrounding villages empty and dozens of residences in the city reduced to rubble. Many of the ones still habitable lack basic services. Schools are in disrepair. Most stalls in the market remain shuttered.
In addition, mistrust among the community grew. Numerous signs are spray-painted with messages asking people to call the SBU, the Ukrainian security services, with any information about collaborators.
The fraction of its prewar population of about 40,000 who have returned are struggling to repair the homes, lives and social bonds broken by the war.
“My son is very tired and very, very nervous,” said Iryna Zhukova, 45, who worked at a bread factory in the city before it was destroyed. “Any loud sound, and he’s already running to the basement.”
During the occupation, she and her husband and children sheltered in a basement for 2 1/2 months, she said, and it took an emotional toll on them, especially the children. They are unnerved by loud sounds, she said, and still experiencing trauma from those 10 weeks in the basement.
But while they survived, other family members did not, perishing in a different basement during an aerial bomb attack in March 2022. Her brother and his wife, their three children and two of the children’s grandparents were all killed.
Almost 50 people had been sheltering inside, she said, but no emergency service was available to dig them out.
She recounted how her daughter-in-law’s father, who survived because he had left the building in search of tea, heard the moaning of people trapped inside for several days. But no one could save them.
Zhukova’s 10-year-old son is taking his classes online this year because most of Izium’s schools are ruined and will not open before next year. Many are also missing students. Inna Marchenko, 42, a math teacher, said that one-third of the families of her 30 students had returned to Izium but that two families had “gone completely silent.” She worries that they died.
School-age children said they missed extracurricular activities like taekwondo (the trainer left the city) and swimming in the Siversky Donets River (because of the risk of mines). They also missed the friends who fled and had not returned home.
There are very few places for children to play anymore. On one summer afternoon, some played dress-up in the city’s once-grand theater with the few stage costumes that had not been destroyed, stomping through layers of trash, ammunition boxes and old film rolls.
Lyceum No. 2, the school where Kotliarova worked, still bears the signs of the occupation, when Russian soldiers used it as a base.
Inside, letters sent to the occupying soldiers from Russian schoolchildren hang on the walls. Stacks of Red Star, a Russian military newspaper, are piled up in the hallways, along with other propaganda pamphlets. The cafeteria, like most of the classrooms, is completely gutted; when the occupiers left, they took anything of possible value, including every hot water heater and even the small sinks in each classroom, according to a custodian who was protecting the school.
The school’s director was among the residents of Izium who has been accused of collaborating with the occupying authorities and is on trial in the regional capital of Kharkiv.
The building where Polina Zolotarova, 70, lives has three gaping holes in it. It is still standing after three missile strikes. But of the 60 apartments in her building, hers is one of only three that are inhabited now. She has to climb down five flights of stairs to get water so she can flush the toilet, wash dishes and shower, she said.
She has to carry her water alone because her daughter, son-in-law and his mother were killed in the same strike on their own apartment that killed Zhukova’s relatives, across the river in March 2022.
“When they finally got her from the rubble, her head was broken,” Zolotarova said of her daughter. “She didn’t have a face anymore. But I recognized her.”
On a recent afternoon, she joined 100 or so other people, including Zhukova and her mother, in front of the apartment building. An improvised memorial was set up showing pictures of some of the deceased. War crime investigators were examining the site, measuring metal fragments found nearby while people waited for a humanitarian aid distribution of dried fruit.
Missiles and drones were not the only ways that mayhem arrived in Izium. Last month, Mariia Kurhuzova, 73, was feeding cats in the city center when her right leg was blown off by a mine. The area around the city was heavily mined by the time Russian forces fled, and Izium’s hospital is treating around three serious mine injuries per month, said Dr. Bohdan Berezhnyi, an anesthesiologist.
In the bed next to Kurhuzova sat Lidiia Borova, 70, who had been picking mushrooms when she stepped on a mine and lost her right leg. Her jars of preserved mushrooms had been raided by Russian soldiers living in her house, and she had wanted to start replenishing it for winter.
Borova is determined to learn to walk again — so well that she will strut “like an American businessman” on her new prosthetic leg, she said. She will continue to plant strawberries and tend bees, just as she did before the war.
“I will not sit around. I will work,” she said. “We Ukrainians are unbreakable.”
The hospital itself bears war scars. Its modern anesthesiology wing was damaged in a missile strike in March, and what remains is covered in rubble. The building’s internal walls are still cracked. A small, dank room in the basement has been set up to handle urgent surgeries “in case of another Shahed drone attack,” Berezhnyi said, referring to Iranian-made drones that Russian forces have used in the war.
Indeed, the fear of more destruction hangs over all of Izium.
“During the occupation, people were afraid of everything, even to go outside their house,” said Maksym Maksymov, 51, a businessperson who said he was imprisoned and tortured with electric shocks during the final weeks of Russian control.
“People still haven’t recovered from this psychological trauma,” he said. “This feeling of total fear that came with the occupation — it hasn’t disappeared.”
In the meantime, the war rages on. Zhukova’s eldest daughter recently turned 18, making her husband ineligible for military exemption because he no longer has three or more children who are minors. The day after her birthday, his draft papers arrived.
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