For centuries, Izyum was considered the gateway to the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and from there to the Black Sea. The Russians called the area around it the Izyum Pass.
Its strategic position made Izyum a fierce battleground in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as Moscow used it as a staging point for its assault on Ukrainian forces in Donbass. It fell entirely to Russian forces on April 1, trapping thousands of civilians in a city where up to 80% of its residential buildings were destroyed.
“Before the war, Izyum had a population of 46,000 people,” said the town’s mayor, Valerii Marchenko, who managed to leave with thousands of fellow citizens before his capture. “There was a factory that produced military equipment, a few small and medium enterprises. Relations with neighboring cities of Donbass were friendly. We have always helped each other. But that was before.”
It is difficult for the Ukrainian authorities to know the situation in Izyum, located 70 miles southeast of Kharkiv. Before the Russian occupation, the local authorities managed to evacuate part of the population. But officials say an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 citizens remain trapped, their fates uncertain.
“We cannot know for sure, because around 1,000 civilians were killed in airstrikes, artillery fire and shelling,” Marchenko said. “The last centralized evacuation took place on March 10. We organized a green corridor with 60 buses. Humanitarian aid poured in and people fled in these buses.
“Then we tried three times to organize green corridors, but when the buses got closer to the city, they were shot down by the Russians and had to turn back. Some volunteers used their own cars and risked their lives to evacuate people, but organized evacuation was impossible. And now that the city is occupied, our hands are tied.
Witnesses told the Guardian how residents had survived in their basements for weeks without electricity, heat or running water. Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk said Izium was the area with the highest concentration of Russian troops.
Capturing Izyum took several weeks. “Our city is separated into a northern part and a southern part by the Silverskyi Donets River,” Marchenko said. “The Russians first tried to enter the northern part. Our soldiers blew up the bridges so that they could not enter the southern part from where they could go to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
“For almost three weeks, they couldn’t take control of the southern part. There were many attempts by the Russian invaders to build temporary bridges over the river, but our defenders destroyed them. After countless attempts, they succeeded in crossing the river, besieging the city and, after a week, taking control of the southern part.
A 60-year-old man from Izyum said he managed to escape Russian troops before the city fell by swimming across the Severskyi Donets in freezing weather.
“I was in the northern part of the city when armed men who identified themselves as soldiers of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic came towards me,” the man said. “They threatened me with weapons and took two of my vehicles: a minibus and an SUV, as well as all the alcohol in my house. As they robbed the house, they left me out of sight [and] I took advantage of the moment and escaped.
He continued, “I swam to the southern part of Izyum across the river. I then contacted the city authorities by telephone and they organized an “evacuation march”, so they gave us the path we had to take. Eight people accepted the risky operation, including four women, a teenager and a girl with cancer who urgently needed chemotherapy. We walked about 15 km [9 miles] under fire [and] at the designated place, we were met by the mayor of Izyum, Valerii Marchenko, and other employees. Then we all went to Sloviansk and have been safe ever since. »
Izyum has now become a hub for Russian forces. Officials say its capture allowed Russia to move artillery 30 miles to areas of Donbass under Ukrainian control.
“Our troops are holding them there,” Marchenko said. “But there are a lot of machines in the city. They move their troops from kyiv and Chernihiv regions to Izyum. Before, all their machines were marked with the letter Z, but now it is also V and O. They are concentrating their troops, machines and equipment to advance their attack on Donbass.
As Russian forces advance, the mayors of Balakliya and Kupyansk, towns 30 miles and 43 miles respectively from Izyum, reached an agreement with Russian authorities. Both now face life imprisonment for treason.
“I just don’t understand them,” Marchenko said. “I also received offers from the invaders with a request to let them pass and surrender. I told them that I was mayor of a Ukrainian city. And it will remain so. And I will never become a traitor. Why did they do this? You should ask them.
Some witnesses alleged that the Russians had prepared a list of individuals to be “hunted”: those who might possess weapons, businessmen, activists and the military. The fear is that Izyum could become another Bucha, where hundreds of civilians have been killed and buried in mass graves or abandoned in the streets.
“Bucha and Izyum are very similar,” Marchenko said. “In both, more than 80% of residential buildings are destroyed. Residents of both towns hid in basements for more than a month under constant shelling. There was no food. Some reports claim that the Russians are compiling a list of people who need humanitarian aid. But instead, they are preparing a list of activists, Donbass veterans, police officers and local business owners. If they find them, they will be taken to an unknown location and we will not know their fate.
Based on the Russian advance in recent weeks, the conquest of Donbass seems imminent, but Marchenko believes nothing is lost as long as Ukrainian soldiers stand before them.