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A wedding dress was placed in her coffin: The story of a family wiped out in Izium and the year-long wait to rebury their bodies

Saturday, 13 May 2023, 12:44

At half past five in the morning on 3 March 2022, Vitalii Perehon, 47, who lives in Kyiv Oblast, was woken by a phone call. It was Serhii Martovytskyi, his cousin from Izium. Vitalii's hands started shaking.


"Vitalii, they're gone…"

"What are you talking about?"

"They are all dead…"

Serhii sent Vitalii a video of a house in his aunt's yard where he had spent time since he was a child. Only one wall was left. Everything around it was destroyed, reduced to ashes – just a cloud of smoke. 

Vitalii's daughter Liza and other members of his family had been there in that house on Ukrainska Street. The people who died there were:

  • Yelyzaveta (Liza) Horbach, 19
  • Valentyna Perehon, 73
  • Oleksandr Perehon, 41 
  • Iryna Perehon, 40
  • Arina Perehon, 9
  • Nikita Perehon, 3
  • Tetiana Balaban, 68

But it was only recently that Vitalii Perehon was able to bury all the dead. The process took over a year. This is the story of the difficulties he faced, and what his life is like now.

"In one moment, the Russians took everything from me..."

Valentyna Perehon and her granddaughter, Yelyzaveta Horbach, Vitalii's daughter (Liza for short), lived in a high-rise building in Izium near the optical and mechanical plant. On 26 February, Valentyna's youngest son, Oleksandr, came to visit from Tsyrkuny [about an hour and a half's drive away], with his wife Iryna and their children, Arina and Nikita. The family decided to stay together in the house on Ukrainska Street. Serhii Martovytskyi's family lived there too – his wife and children and his mother-in-law, Tetiana Balaban, Valentyna's sister. There were two family houses in the yard, so there was enough space for everyone.

On 2 March, day seven of the full-scale war, Vitalii Perehon called his relatives in Izium from Kyiv Oblast, which was under attack from the Russians at the time. His 19-year-old daughter Liza said that a friend of hers and her mother were leaving for Poland: there was a taxi waiting outside, and she wanted to go with them.

"At that time, evacuation convoys were being fired on in Kyiv Oblast, and I was worried that this would happen to my daughter," said Vitalii. "So I forbade her to go. I told her to stay with her grandmother and my brother. Now I want to turn back time; I wouldn't mind where she went, I just wish she hadn't stayed at home."

Now he often goes to church and talks about it with the priest. He says he feels better afterwards.

On the night of 2-3 March, the Russian army bombarded Izium.

"The Russians dropped three aerial bombs that night," says Viktoria, who is from Izium. "The first hit the Martovytskyi family's yard, the second hit the home of Oleh Kuznetsov, who was also killed, and the third hit the night school, where ATO forces were based back in 2014." [The ATO or Anti-Terrorist Operation is a term used from 2014 to 2018 by the media, the government of Ukraine and the OSCE to identify combat actions in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts against Russian military forces and pro-Russian separatists – ed.]

Shortly before midnight on 2 March, Liza, Valentyna, Oleksandr, Iryna, their children Arina and Nikita, and Auntie Tetiana were having a cup of tea together. Then Valentyna and Iryna went to put Nikita to bed. Tetiana was waiting for her relatives in another room. Oleksandr, Liza and Arina went out into the yard. At that moment, the Russian military dropped a bomb on the Perehons' home. Oleksandr, Liza and Arina were thrown back by the blast wave. Their bodies remained intact. But of Valentyna, Iryna, Nikita and Tetiana only fragments remained.

"In one moment, the Russians took everything from me," Vitalii says.

Seven lives

Valentyna Perehon, 73, was from Kharkiv. She worked at the Izium Optical and Mechanical Plant in the optics quality control department. There she met her future husband, Mykola. The couple had two sons, Vitalii and Oleksandr.

The Perehon family (from left to right): Vitalii, Valentyna, Oleksandr

"My parents worked at the plant in three shifts," Vitalii recalls. "While they were at work, I used to pick Oleksandr up from nursery school, feed him and play with him. At weekends we'd visit my grandparents – my dad's parents – in their village in the Balakliia district. When the plant went bankrupt, most of the workers started working in the optics business. My mother used to travel to Izmail, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro selling lenses and glasses to earn at least a few pennies."

Liza Horbach enjoyed taking photos for social media

Yelyzaveta (Liza), 19, was Vitalii Perehon's daughter from his first marriage. After 9th grade (aged 15), she started at Izium Vocational and Technical Lyceum No. 24, specialising in IT. She loved taking pictures and dreamed of opening a beauty salon.

"I met Maryna, Liza's mother, in Izium," Vitalii says. "She was my first great love, but unfortunately our relationship didn't work out. I went to work in Kyiv, and Liza was raised by her grandmas, especially my mum. She used to take her to nursery, and later to school. Maryna often used to travel long distances to earn money too."

Vitalii says that he now regrets that he spent so little time with his daughter.

"We often talked on the phone. Liza used to send me photos and she'd share her problems and joys. She would have graduated from technical school, and we'd agreed that I would take her to live with me in Kyiv. But I never got to do that," Vitalii says.

Oleksandr Perehon
photo from his social media 

Oleksandr Perehon, 41, Vitalii's brother, was five years younger than him. He is remembered as sociable and hardworking. He met his wife, Iryna, in Kharkiv. The couple lived in the village of Tsyrkuny and had two children, their daughter Arina and son Nikita.

"Oleksandr built their house with his own hands, from the foundation up. During the day he worked at a petrol station, and then he built the house, brick by brick. Iryna and his children were his whole world. He did everything for them," his brother Vitalii recalls.

Iryna Perehon with her husband Oleksandr, daughter Arina and mother-in-law Valentyna
Photos from their social media

Iryna Perehon, 40, was born in the village of Tsyrkuny to her parents, Tetiana and Ivan Bobro. She worked as an accountant.

"Iryna was a really joyful person," says Iryna's colleague Larysa Zhuravska. "She was cheerful, always smiling. She worked in Kharkiv. She was smart, professional, and a quick learner. She had a beautiful family – so friendly, and they loved their children so much."

The last time Larysa spoke with Iryna on the phone was on 2 March.

"Irochka [a diminutive of Iryna – ed.] was very worried because she hadn't been able to persuade her mum and dad to come with them. She said she would never forgive herself for letting them stay [in Tsyrkuny] under bombardment. She was also happy that her children could finally sleep in a warm house," says Larysa.

Arina Perehon

Nine-year-old Arina Perehon, Iryna and Oleksandr's daughter, went to school in Tsyrkuny. She is remembered as a kind and calm girl.

"Arina had extra English and maths lessons with tutors. She went to art clubs, she danced, and she loved drawing," says Iryna's friend Nataliia Tiutiunnyk.

Arina's younger brother Nikita would have turned four in the summer of 2022. A shy but cheerful little boy, he attended a nursery school in Kharkiv.

"Oleksandr built a playground near the house," Nataliia says. "We used to get together there with our children almost every evening in the summer. We used to have a tradition of celebrating the New Year together. In January 2022 they came to ours – Iryna dressed up as the Snow Maiden [Santa Claus's granddaughter and helper] and Oleksandr as a tiger. That's when we took our last photo together. They had so many plans; they had just covered the roof of their new house and were planning its interior."

Nikita Perehon at a New Year's Eve celebration

Tetiana Balaban, 68, was the mother-in-law of Serhii Martovytskyi, Vitalii's cousin. She used to work at the optics plant. After the plant stopped production in 2012, she went on to work at a market, where she sold blankets, rugs and bedlinen. In her retirement, she helped her children to look after their grandchildren, and she couldn't get enough of them.

"Tetiana's husband died a long time ago," says local resident Viktoria. "She lived with her daughter Olena, her son-in-law Serhii and her grandchildren. When Serhii built a new two-storey house, Tetiana stayed in the old one.  That's how the two families came to live in the same yard."

Next to Iryna's name on the list, it said "Body part"

From 3 March until Izium's liberation on 10 September, Iryna Perehon's parents Tetiana and Ivan did not know what had happened to their daughter and grandchildren. They hoped that their loved ones were alive. They just had no way of contacting them.

Meanwhile, the Perehons' friends, who had known about the tragedy since March, were looking for them.

"My daughter found a list on social media, a list of people who had been killed in Izium around 20 March," says Iryna's colleague Larysa. "Next to Iryna's name it said 'Body part'. It's just horrific... Iryna was always smiling, her eyes shone. That's how I remember her."

Iryna's friend Nataliia said that Iryna's brother and his wife knew about the tragedy but could not bring themselves to tell her parents. They were afraid their hearts would not be able to take it.

Vitalii not only knew, he also helped to organise his family members' burial. He tried to travel to Izium from Kyiv in early March but was not allowed to leave the city of Boryspil, so he decided to try to help remotely.

"I managed to contact Volodymyr Matsokin, Deputy Mayor of Izium," says Vitalii. "We discussed what to do next. The bodies of Liza, Oleksandr and Arina were taken to a morgue in the right bank part of Izium. My cousin Serhii and his son Artem collected the remains of their relatives themselves. They searched under the rubble and picked up pieces from the trees. They kept them in a bucket in the shed."

The Izium forest where people killed by Russian soldiers during the occupation of the city were buried


Meanwhile, the Russian advance on Izium continued. All the bridges were blown up. Temporary pontoon crossings were set up there when the city was occupied on 1 April.

Volodymyr Matsokin contacted some funeral directors in Izium, and they managed to get into the morgue and retrieve the bodies of the Perehon family. At the same time, the pieces of Valentyna, Iryna and Nikita's bodies were collected in bags and taken to a mass burial site in a forest. The intact bodies were placed in two coffins – Oleksandr's together with his daughter Arina's, and Liza's separately.

The rest of the deceased were placed in a single bag marked "Auntie Valia [a diminutive of Valentyna] and other family members" and put in a single coffin. The funeral service dug three graves, buried them all, and put up crosses with nameplates.

Serhii Martovytskyi buried his mother-in-law Tetiana Balaban himself. After the tragedy, he and his family went to the city of Kupiansk to visit relatives, and then to Russia.

"When this was happening, we used to speak on the phone often, but now we don't talk to Serhii much. I don’t want to. We are in constant contact with our cousin Maryna Mitilova, who was under occupation the entire time," Vitalii said.

The morgue attendants mixed up the bodies and brought us different ones

On the eve of his trip to liberated Izium, Vitalii received a call from a Kharkiv investigator who informed him that his relatives had been found in the mass burial site.

"I went to Kharkiv, but I didn't find them in the morgue or the refrigeration units. I started to feel hopeful... Then I went to Izium. I found Dmytro, the funeral service worker who had buried them, and we went to the forest together with him and my sister Maryna. Dmytro showed me the place. Only then did I believe it had really happened. There were hundreds of recently-dug graves all around, and crosses and sheets [to cover up bodies] lying around... I still have this image in my mind," Vitalii recalled.

Maryna Mitilova accompanied Vitalii not only to the cemetery, but also to the site of the tragedy. When he got there, he fell to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably for half an hour.

Forensic scientists take DNA samples from exhumed bodies in Izium

Vitalii then took a DNA test in Kharkiv and gave a statement at the prosecutor's office.

"The investigators promised that everything would be over quickly, but six months on they called me to identify Liza on a monitor. But the person I saw was not my child – I did not recognise her. Liza was wearing different clothes at the time of her death. Later, the investigator called and said that he had some upsetting news to give me: Liza's body was missing. I asked: 'How can it be missing, there was a DNA match on her?' I was told that there had been a mistake. They tried to calm me down, saying that there were still 70 unidentified bodies in the refrigerator and maybe one of them was hers," Vitalii says. You can hear the pain in his voice. 

Oleksandr, Iryna, Arina and Nikita Perehon were buried in the village of Tsyrkuny

On 3 March 2023, one year to the day since the tragedy, Vitalii was finally able to bury his brother and his brother's family. Oleksandr, Iryna, Arina and Nikita Perehon were buried in the village of Tsyrkuny.

"Since Arina and Oleksandr were in the same section of the Kharkiv morgue, and Iryna and Nikita were in another, we asked that they all be placed in the same bag and coffin so that they could be together. On the day of the funeral, we were waiting at the cemetery. The diggers had already dug the grave, and the priest had arrived. The bus bringing the bodies arrived, but suddenly it turned back. It turned out that the morgue attendants had mixed up the bodies and brought us different ones. We waited at the cemetery for almost five hours until they brought our relatives. What if we had buried strangers?" Vitalii says indignantly.

Vitalii says he felt a little better after burying his brother Oleksandr and Oleksandr's family.

"This tragedy is a loss that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. I realise that I will never hear Arina, Nikita or Iryna's laughter again, or go fishing with my brother. But at least now I have a place to visit them at the cemetery," Vitalii says.

The next challenge was to bury his mother Valentyna and daughter Liza. For the past six months, he had been having dreams about his mum and daughter almost every night.

"There was such pain and heaviness weighing on my heart. We were into the second year [since they were killed], and I hadn't been able to return their bodies to the earth. I wanted them to finally find eternal peace. My heart felt uneasy. When my mum's remains were identified, the investigator said I could write an application to take her back, but I didn't want to do that without Liza, because I planned to bury them together in Izium," he says.

On 16 March, Vitalii had another dream about Liza. He was hugging his daughter and holding her tight. His mind was racing: "I have to save her from the explosion. I have to keep her alive. I have to give her all the warmth I didn't give her when she was little. I have to... I can do it..."

A wedding dress is placed in Liza's coffin

While the journalists from the Memorial project were putting this story together, they kept in touch with Vitalii Perehon and tried to support him. On 24 March 2023, Vitalii reported that investigators had called and said that he could come in, write an application, and pick up his mother and daughter for reburial in Izium.

On 27 March, Vitalii travelled to Izium. Together with his cousin Maryna Mitilova, they went to the city council and wrote an application asking for help with the burial of Valentyna and Liza. They were then directed to a funeral home, where they presented copies of the death certificates. Based on these, the council provides a coffin and a cross free of charge. If they don't like them, the relatives of the deceased can pay extra and get different ones.

"Valentyna and Liza were brought to Izium in closed coffins on 30 March," says Maryna Mitilova. "We bought Liza a wedding dress, a veil and shoes. [According to Orthodox tradition, an unmarried woman is the bride of Christ, so she wears a wedding dress – ed.] She wanted to get married to her fiancé last summer – they should have had their wedding..."

About 30 relatives and neighbours attended Valentyna and Liza's funeral

Vitalii was able to bury his mother and daughter at the new cemetery in Izium, on Nekrasov Street, on 31 March. Relatives and neighbours came to see Valentyna and Liza off on their final journey.

"It was snowing and raining, it was cold. But I felt a little warmer and lighter in my heart," Vitalii says.

Moving on and remembering

Iryna's friend Nataliia Tiutiunnyk hasn't told her daughter that Arina and Nikita, with whom they had spent so many summer evenings, are no longer alive.

The last joint photo of the Perehon and Tiutiunnyk families, taken on 1 January 2022

"When I look at the photos of us together, my hands start to shake. My daughter asks me if she'll be going to the same school as Nikita and Arina. I can't tell her that not only is that not going to happen, but also, we no longer have a home in Tsyrkuny. I still haven't thrown away the keys, I carry them in my pocket," Nataliia says.

Iryna's parents, Tetiana and Ivan, moved in with their son in Kharkiv. They are finding it very hard to cope with the loss, and they have not found peace: their native Kharkiv region is being relentlessly shelled by Russian missiles.

Maryna, Liza's mum, is afraid to leave Poland and go back to Izium. The last time she saw her daughter alive was in December 2021. She says her biggest fear is going into Liza's room, where all her things still remain as they were.

"We've both lost any reason to return to Izium. There's no one there for us any more," says Vitalii.

Now he has a lot of legal issues to deal with: debts for utilities that were never provided, who should inherit the property that survived...

Vitalii says he wants the memory of all those who died in Izium because of the Russian occupiers to be preserved forever. He wants their names to be engraved on a monument and never forgotten.

This story was prepared by the Memorial project, which tells the stories of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers killed by Russia, especially for Ukrainska Pravda. To report data on Ukraine's losses, fill out the forms for fallen servicemen and civilian victims.

Inna Kubai, especially for Ukrainska Pravda Zhyttia

Translation: Yelyzaveta Khodatska, Artem Yakymyshyn and Oxana Hart

Editing: Teresa Pearce