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AP Exclusive: First photos, video of mass burial site in recaptured Ukrainian city of Izium

Oleg Kotenko, Ukraine’s commissioner for issues of missing persons under special circumstances, uses his smartphone to record unidentified graves in the recently retaken city of Izium, Ukraine, Sept. 15, 2022. President Volodymr Zelenskyy said hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as Ukrainian soldiers, had been found at the mass grave site after being tortured, shot or killed by Russian shelling. The bodies of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers killed by Russian forces were discovered one of the war’s largest mass grave sites on the outskirts of the city, one of the first taken by Russian forces after the war started in February.. mass grave of Ukrainian soldiers and unknown buried civilians was found in the forest of recently recaptured city of Izium. (AP Photo / Evgeniy Maloletka)

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When residents in the recently recaptured Ukrainian city of Izium started talking about a burial site that Russian troops had created after taking over the city, AP video journalist Vasilisa Stepanenko and photographer Evgeniy Maloletka set out to find it.

The journalists found residents who could give them directions to the site, then walked through forest, past abandoned Russian positions, until they saw Ukrainian soldiers in the distance.

Amid the pine trees were hundreds of graves with simple wooden crosses in uneven rows,most marked only with numbers. Maloletka and Stepanenko were the first journalists there. A larger grave bore a marker saying it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers, although officials suspected it was many more. One Ukrainian investigator said the mass grave was “one of the largest burial sites in any one liberated city.” Residents said dozens of adults and children were buried there after a Russian airstrike on an apartment building.

Soldiers were demining the site and preparing for exhumations to begin the next day. Maloletka and Stepanenko interviewed the official leading the effort and made photos and video of the soldiers at work.

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Upon returning to Kharkiv and regaining phone service,they called Karl Ritter,AP’s Ukraine coordinator,to explain what they had discovered. Ritter had seen a news report without visuals earlier in the day about a possible mass grave in Izium; he realized the AP team had found it. That evening,when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referenced the Izium graves in his nightly address, the AP had exclusive photos and footage of the site.

For more than 12 hours AP’s arresting coverage was unmatched,used extensively by major broadcasters worldwide including al-Jazeera,France 24,Sky News and Deutsche Welle. The video was used more than 3,000 times in the days that followed by 217 channels. It topped The Guardian’s website and was also used online by USA Today,The New York Times and countless others. Maloletka’s images were published by almost all major outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times and NPR.

Later Thursday,a team arrived from Radio Svoboda,the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL,but no other media visited the site until the following day,when Ukrainian authorities invited international media to the burial site for the start of the exhumations. Maloletka and Stepanenko also returned, their advance planning enabling them to transmit their coverage of the exhumations quickly despite the lack of cell phone service — they borrowed a satellite connection from a nearby military checkpoint. Zelenskyy announced Friday that investigators had found evidence of torture,including bodies with broken limbs and ropes around their necks.

AP’s coverage was credited by major news outlets and officials who pointed to the work as evidence of a mass burials.

For unrivaled all-formats reporting that brought to light atrocities in Izium a day ahead of competitors, Stepanenko and Maloletka earn AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner honors.

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