The Observers

Investigators use satellite images to find extensive new graveyard in Chernihiv, Ukraine

Investigators at the Centre for Information Resilience used satellite images and social media videos to determine that several gravesites had been built in Chernihiv, Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February.
Investigators at the Centre for Information Resilience used satellite images and social media videos to determine that several gravesites had been built in Chernihiv, Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February. © Observers

While it is difficult to estimate the real civilian death toll of the war in Ukraine, videos and reports from the ground make it clear that thousands of people have lost their lives in the fighting. Mass gravesites and makeshift cemeteries have popped up around the country, offering investigators and NGOs a way to estimate the number of casualties of the war. The Centre for Information Resilience has been tracking some of these cemeteries using satellite imagery. One of their investigators, Ben McCann, told us more.

Advertising

The Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) is a British NGO that has been tracking the war in Ukraine using satellite images and social media photos and videos taken by eyewitnesses on the ground. They came across reports of a mass gravesite being built in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine that underwent weeks of Russian bombardments. Using satellite imagery, they were able to determine the scale of the cemetery and when it was built.

'We were able to analyse the images that we had picked up from social media, and we were able to ultimately identify around 350 individual graves in the site'

Ben McCann is a consultant investigator for CIR who led the investigation.

We had lots of open source video and imagery which had been supplied from Ukrainians over social media. We were able to identify from some some initial reporting from journalists on the ground that there were, in fact, mass graves in the city, but there hadn't been any evidence about where exactly they were or when exactly they'd been dug. So that's where the Centre for Information Resilience stepped in.
An image of the gravesites in Chernihiv published by independent Russian media outlet Meduza.
An image of the gravesites in Chernihiv published by independent Russian media outlet Meduza. © Meduza.io
The image that kind of initiated the investigation was published by an outlet called Meduza, which is an [independent] Russian-language news site. We began searching for an area that was similar to what we can see in that image. In the image, there is a forest and in the background, there's obviously a large existing gravesite which had been there for some time so we were able to narrow down our search. We started using satellite imagery that had been gathered since the start of the conflict. 
We then went about analysing social media imagery, which was a more tedious process. But it just takes time to match up what we can see in the images to our existing reference images that we had already confirmed by geolocation, by satellite imagery and on-the-ground corroboration. We were able to analyse the images that we had picked up from social media, and we were able to ultimately identify around 350 individual graves in the site.

McCann and his team were able to determine that the graves had been dug after the Russian invasion began on February 24. Satellite imagery taken before that date showed the grave site filled with trees. Later, the forest was cleared away to make room for the cemetery. 

CIR and other NGOs are trying to make online investigations like this one airtight so that they could one day be used in a court of law to bring justice for the victims. 

'Satellite imagery can't reveal the complete extent of civilian suffering'

McCann explained that satellite imagery and open-source resources can't always tell the entire story.

I think the importance of this work is, is that it sets a baseline of truth for future investigations. So in order to establish some agreed upon facts of the case, open source investigations are really helpful for doing that. They can give us a specific idea of when exactly this occurred in terms of the where, the what and the when. 

Where it becomes challenging is the who – attributing these acts to a specific actor. We know the Russians were extensively bombing Chernov, we know that there were civilian casualties as a result of shelling in the city. But it's really challenging to say that because of these graves, we know that all 350 that we reported on were a direct result of the Russian invasion. 

Satellite images alone can't tell us who did what. And they can't reveal the complete extent of civilian suffering.

Chernihiv was the stage of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces between February 24 and April 5, when Russian troops officially withdrew from the region. During that time, the city was heavily bombarded.

Amnesty International called an unguided bomb attack on March 3 in Chernihiv a possible war crime. It killed a reported 47 civilians. Officials report that up to 700 people may have lost their lives over the month of Russian attacks on Chernihiv.