Russia’s attacks on civilian targets have obliterated everyday life in Ukraine
By Keith Collins, Danielle Ivory, Jon Huang, Cierra S. Queen, Lauryn Higgins, Jess Ruderman, Kristine White, Bonnie G. Wong and Guilbert Gates
In the early weeks of Russia’s invasion, at least 1,500 civilian buildings, structures and vehicles in Ukraine were damaged or destroyed. More than 1,189 civilians have been killed, including at least 108 children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who noted that the real toll was likely to be considerably higher.
This devastation, identified and cataloged by The New York Times, from Feb. 24 to March 20, included at least 23 hospitals and other health care infrastructure; 330 schools; 27 cultural buildings; 98 commercial buildings, including at least 11 related to food or agriculture; and 900 houses and apartment buildings.
The Times examined thousands of verified photos and videos, descriptions and visual evidence from official announcements from Ukrainian military and government agencies, and reporting from Times journalists and wire photographers working on the ground. Because of the difficulties in getting comprehensive reporting of events in wartime, the tallies are undercounts. But the breadth of evidence identified by the Times shows how, in just a few weeks, normal everyday life for many people in Ukraine has been obliterated as Russia is investigated for potential war crimes.
With the beginning of the invasion came aggressive airstrikes against military and government buildings and airports in Ukraine. Soon after, Russia appeared to shift many of its attacks to highly populated areas with important civilian infrastructure.
Russian attacks have damaged preschools, post offices, museums, sports facilities and factories. Power and gas lines have been severed, bridges and railway stations blown up. At least 10 houses of worship have become targets, including a now-crumpled church in Malyn.
Civilians have been killed in their cars. Remnants of a missile were found in a zoo. At least one war memorial in the small city of Bucha took gunfire. A car wash in Baryshivka, east of Kyiv, was reduced to rubble. Onions spilled from a warehouse that was destroyed in Mykolaiv, where several residential neighborhoods have been shelled to pieces and the morgue has overflowed with bodies.
In Mariupol, residents have been subjected to an unending onslaught by Russian forces, and bodies are being buried in mass graves. Recently, an adviser to the city government said that the official death toll was 2,400 civilians, well above the conservative estimate given by the U.N. The next day, Russian forces bombed the city’s Drama Theater, where hundreds of people had been sheltering, most likely increasing the toll. The word “children” was written in Russian in giant letters on the pavement on both sides of the building, clearly visible from the sky.
A recent analysis of satellite imagery found at least 391 buildings with evidence of damage in a Mariupol area dotted with schools and health facilities. An analysis of photos, videos and reports from the ground found that at least 148 civilian structures in the city and surrounding area have become targets, including at least one church. Visual evidence and reports from Mariupol have been especially limited because the city has been bombarded by Russian forces for weeks.
The top prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under international humanitarian law, combatants and commanders are supposed to take steps to minimize harm to civilians or “civilian objects,” like homes, buildings, other infrastructure or vehicles that are not being used for military purposes. In some cases, they are supposed to warn the occupants before an attack.
Depending on the circumstances of an attack, targeting civilian structures or indiscriminately bombing densely populated areas could be violations of law, said Laurie Blank, a clinical professor of law at Emory University.
Videos and photos from Ukraine indicate that Russian forces have used cluster munitions in populated civilian neighborhoods. Some countries have agreed not to use the weapons under a treaty because they are imprecise and sometimes leave unexploded submunitions, which can pose a lasting threat to people in the area. Russia and Ukraine have not signed the treaty, but use of the munitions in populated areas may be seen as an indiscriminate attack.
International law experts cautioned that photos and videos of ruined schools and other institutions do not necessarily prove that a war crime or crime against humanity has been committed. Details of each instance must be investigated thoroughly, including the intent of an attack and the circumstances surrounding the event. (For example, if a school or a grocery store was being used as a military staging ground, it could potentially be considered a justified target, according to international law.)
There have been at least 62 confirmed attacks on health care personnel and health-related infrastructure, like hospitals and ambulances, in Ukraine, according to data provided by the World Health Organization, as of March 22. These have resulted in at least 15 deaths and dozens of injuries.
The Times identified by location at least 23 health care facilities and vehicles that have been damaged during the invasion. This included a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol that was bombed, killing at least three people, according to government officials, including at least one child.
Despite photographs and video of the blasted-out hospital in Mariupol, including footage of victims of the bombing and corroboration by the United Nations, Russian officials denied having hit it or alternatively said it had not been used as a hospital.
One image, a pregnant woman lying on a stretcher, carried by men across fallen branches with a smoldering hospital in the background, appeared on the front pages of newspapers, including the Times.
The Associated Press, one of the few news organizations that at the time was able to send dispatches from Mariupol, reported later that both she and her baby had died.