Investigators use satellite images to determine civilian death tolls in Ukraine

A satellite image from Planet Labs taken on February 28 in Kherson, Ukraine shows bulldozers digging lines of graves in a cemetery.
A satellite image from Planet Labs taken on February 28 in Kherson, Ukraine shows bulldozers digging lines of graves in a cemetery. © Planet Labs / Nathan Ruser

Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed by bombing and fighting since Russia invaded the country on February 24. As bodies pile up in cities across the country, citizens and authorities have attempted to create mass graves and makeshift cemeteries to hold the dead. Satellite images and amateur footage document the massive expansion of gravesites, offering up essential evidence of the real civilian toll of the violence in Ukraine.

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Warning: this article contains images and descriptions that may be disturbing to some readers

The death toll in Ukraine has been difficult to estimate. As of April 15, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had recorded 4,633 civilian casualties, of which 1,982 had been killed. The figures are widely thought to be considerably higher than this, however, as many reports are still pending.

A video posted on April 11, 2022 shows newly dug graves marked with small wooden signs to bury people killed in Chernihiv during the Russian war in Ukraine.

Russian troops have placed some bodies of killed civilians in mass graves and mobile crematoriums, according to Ukrainian officials, making it even harder to ascertain how many people have died. 

The Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior has said that 2,700 civilian deaths have been officially reported and forensically confirmed. 

However, investigators and international officials have attempted to document civilian casualties through the use of visual evidence, including satellite images of gravesites as well as photos and videos of mass graves and makeshift cemeteries. 

Using satellite imagery to pinpoint and track gravesites

The British NGO the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) has used satellite imagery to identify and track the graves set up in Ukraine since the offensive began in February. 

A comparison of a satellite image taken in a cemetery in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson shows multiple rows of graves being added between February 28 and April 15.

A comparison of satellite images taken on February 28 and April 15, 2022 shows an increase in graves built at a site in Kherson, Ukraine.

According to investigator for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Nathan Ruser, 824 new grave plots had been dug at this location between February 28 and April 2. Ruser looked at high-resolution imagery of the cemetery from 2021 to determine how many graves were in each row, and then compared this with the number of new rows added during the war in Ukraine. Around 300 of these new graves had been filled in, indicating that someone had been buried there, while the rest remained empty. 

The first major city to be captured by Russian forces, Kherson is still under Russian control. Ukrainian officials reported that at least 300 soldiers and civilians died in the fighting before Russian troops took over the city. It is impossible to confirm this death toll, however, these satellite images offer a glimpse into the total losses incurred.

The centre was also able to geolocate the site of several mass graves near Chernihiv, a city that experienced heavy shelling for weeks after the invasion. Residents of Chernihiv were forced to bury their dead in a series of mass graves in the nearby Yalivshchyna Forest, according to a CIR investigation.

The team used images published in media reports cross-checked with satellite imagery of the Chernihiv region to pinpoint three separate gravesites, the number of graves in them and the timeline of events.

Videos shared online show people lowering coffins into a mass grave at one of these sites. 

CIR was able to determine that up to 381 grave plots were dug at these three sites between February 24 and March 6. 

It isn’t just online investigators and non-profits who are using satellite imagery to get a better picture of the death toll in Ukraine. The UN has used satellite images to find evidence of mass graves in Mariupol, a port city and major strategic target for the Russian offensive. One of the graves holds at least 200 bodies, according to a UN official, a figure that can help international agencies determine the extent of civilian casualties in the war.