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Mariupol, Ukraine, bomb devastation from Russia war invasion
Mariupol, Ukraine, bomb devastation from Russia war invasion

Human Rights Watch spent nearly two years investigating the devastating impact of the Russian invasion and occupation of Mariupol, Ukraine. Image: Shutterstock



Remotely Investigating Russia’s Devastation of Mariupol 

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On the gray afternoon of March 9, 2022, Russian forces dropped a bomb on a hospital in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. It was the start of an assault that left the city devastated, under Russian control, and out of bounds for researchers. We at Human Rights Watch quickly concluded that we had to find a way to document the devastation.

The massive explosion at the hospital killed at least three people, including a child, and left over a dozen patients and staff wounded. Footage of the ensuing chaos circulated online almost immediately.

Videos showed the once colorful walls of the hospital’s maternity ward and children’s diagnostic unit crumbling. First responders frantically rushed through the courtyard, now marked by a deep crater, to look for survivors. Ukrainian police and volunteers carried away a pregnant woman, wounded and clutching her belly, on a stretcher.

One week later, Russian forces bombed Mariupol’s Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater, killing a still unclear number of civilians among the several hundred seeking shelter inside. In the days before, civilians seeking shelter there had painted “дети,” meaning children, in large Cyrillic script on the ground at both ends of the theater, hoping it would deter Russian forces from targeting the building. Again, videos documenting the strike flooded social media, showing civilians fleeing as the historic cultural center was turned into ruins.

By the time the last Ukrainian forces in Mariupol succumbed to the Russian siege of the city, on May 16, 2022, the city center was shrouded in soot and rubble. The use of explosive weapons had caused death and devastation on the civilian population and infrastructure. Thousands of civilians had been killed in the fighting or died from lack of health care or clean water. And a seemingly endless flow of videos from first responders, sheltering civilians, journalists, and soldiers captured it all: lives lost, homes destroyed, and a city devastated.

As a nonprofit nongovernmental organization committed to research and advocacy on human rights, Human Rights Watch frequently conducts investigations into conflict-related abuses and  atrocities, which may amount to war crimes. So, we use many of the same investigation and open source reporting techniques as watchdog journalism, even if our mission includes advocating for justice for victims and the eventual prosecution of wrongdoing.

Beneath the Rubble, Human Rights Watch investigation of Russian-occupied Mariupol, Ukraine

The Human Rights Watch investigation, Beneath the Rubble: Documenting Devastation and Loss in Mariupol, took nearly two years to complete. Image: Screenshot, Human Rights Watch

At the outset, Human Rights Watch used videos and photographs from the hospital and theater bombings in our coverage of the siege in late March 2022. But we knew the unprecedented volume of footage documenting some of the worst destruction in war-scarred Ukraine warranted a closer look – especially as access to Russian-occupied Mariupol was impossible for our researchers. It could be used to press for accountability for abuses, to capture some of what was lost so that it is never forgotten.

In March 2022, we embarked on what would become an almost two year-long investigation into the siege of the city. With the Ukrainian human rights group Truth Hounds and the architecture practice SITU Research, we conducted a comprehensive damage assessment of the city center for a Human Rights Watch report: Beneath the Rubble: Documenting Devastation and Loss in Mariupol.

The area we selected covers approximately one quarter of the city’s urban territory, or 14 square kilometers (5.4 square miles), in the heart of Mariupol. It was filled with apartment buildings, houses, educational facilities, hospitals, and cultural buildings.

Damage assessments typically rely on high-resolution satellite imagery, which researchers can use to evaluate large areas relatively quickly and leverage historical imagery for a comparative analysis. This approach allows us to identify whether a building was damaged during recent fighting, or before the current war. Geospatial researchers at Human Rights Watch documented damage to thousands of buildings in Mariupol.

Satellite imagery from March 29, 2022, shows damage to buildings and smoke rising from Mariupol’s Central District. Image © 2024 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth

Satellite imagery from March 29, 2022, shows damage to buildings and smoke rising from Mariupol’s Central District. Image: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch; copyright 2024 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth

However, for Mariupol, we realized this approach alone would prove insufficient. Though satellite imagery is useful to note damage to rooftops, damage to facades is harder to see. Because of satellite orbital inclination, the northern facades of structures are almost never captured and often obstructed by shadows.  Furthermore, it is difficult to identify less obvious destruction, like internal incendiary damage or windows blown out, with satellite imagery alone. We decided to supplement our satellite analysis by verifying hundreds of images and videos taken on the ground in Mariupol.

Our research began with discovering and archiving content coming out of Mariupol. We identified a wealth of sources that would become crucial to our damage assessment.

Unlike content from other previous conflicts, where footage is circulated online with little context or locational information, videos shared from Mariupol were remarkably well tagged. Users consistently posted content with captions or titles that included the addresses of damaged buildings shown. One Telegram channel, MariupolNow, recirculated and geotagged submissions from residents all across the city, cultivating a trove of searchable material.

We also discovered scores of smaller Telegram channels dedicated to apartment buildings and streets where residents would post updates and extensively document their living conditions during and after the siege. On YouTube, content creators posted videos showing them driving through the city, recording everything as they went. Other YouTubers visited addresses or buildings requested by their viewers. These invaluable sources provided us with the means to remotely walk the streets of Mariupol.

Human Rights Watch collected, geolocated, and verified more than 850 photographs and videos from Mariupol.

Human Rights Watch collected, geolocated, and verified more than 850 photographs and videos from Mariupol. Images: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch

However, our methodology requires us to ensure that each video or photograph was captured in the place it claimed to depict. So, we began the process of geolocation, verifying the exact geographical spot where each piece of imagery was recorded. We did this by lining up landmarks and other identifiable details in the images with satellite imagery. This step was crucial for validating authenticity. We verified over 850 pieces of content.

After verifying a location, we examined the buildings visible in the image or footage and made a note if we could see any damage. We did this by adding a pin to a shared Google Earth folder. Overall, we recorded damage or destruction to more than 900 mostly larger buildings through verified imagery.

Map of damaged buildings in part of Mariupol’s Central District based on Human Rights Watch analysis of verified photographs and videos. Image © 2024 Airbus. Source: Google Earth

Map of damaged buildings in part of Mariupol’s Central District based on Human Rights Watch analysis of verified photographs and videos. Image: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch, copyright 2024 Airbus. Source: Google Earth

Open source videos and photographs also had their limitations, however. Most of the images and videos we verified documenting damage and destruction were along main roads and depicted larger building complexes – such as schools or apartment buildings. We found very little imagery for smaller streets and houses. For such cases, we relied on satellite imagery.

In all, we analyzed over 6,000 buildings. We found that by May 20, 2022, 443 out of 477 apartment buildings – 93 percent – sustained damage, while 2,673 of the area’s 5,673 single-story structures – 47 percent – also sustained damage.

Map of damaged buildings in part of Mariupol’s Central District based on the Human Rights Watch assessment of photographs, videos, and satellite imagery.

Map of damaged buildings in part of Mariupol’s Central District based on the Human Rights Watch assessment of photographs, videos, and satellite imagery. Image: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch

Our multi-perspective approach created a more accurate representation of destruction to the city center of Mariupol. But this assessment alone could not fully capture the losses. To dig past the rubble, unearth core details of the siege, and preserve the stories of those who lived and died in the city, we needed to make our investigation truly multifaceted.

While conducting our damage assessment, we also interviewed 240 people, most of them displaced Mariupol residents, and broadened our assessment to determine damage to civilian infrastructure, such as educational facilities and hospitals, across Mariupol. We studied imagery to determine types of weapons used during the assault on the city and used social media to help identify the military units participating and Russian commanders who, as a matter of command responsibility, may be culpable for law-of-war violations that could amount to war crimes.

To estimate the minimum number of people who died during the Russian assault, we used satellite imagery and drone footage to count the graves at five cemeteries in and around Mariupol that grew substantially in 2022. By counting single graves one by one as well as the number of small wooden plaques placed on trench-style graves and extrapolating our findings to the remaining area in each cemetery, we concluded that at least 10,284 people died and were buried there during the first year of the conflict. While this is most likely a significant underestimate of the total number of people who died in Mariupol during this period, our count indicates that the city had at least 8,034 deaths above a peacetime rate.

In February 2024, our project culminated in a 224-page report, accompanying web feature, and 22-minute film, which documents this catastrophic Russian assault, including many people harmed in apparently unlawful attacks. Many of these strikes on Mariupol civilian structures may amount to war crimes, including the attack on the maternity hospital, known as Hospital #3, and the Mariupol Drama Theater.

As Russian forces continue to reportedly commit atrocities in Ukraine, preserving the record of civilians lost and those responsible is crucial to hold them accountable. Russia has not allowed any independent investigations into Mariupol to document potential violations and Russian forces have continued to demolish buildings that might contain evidence of war crimes.

This is why Human Rights Watch and our partners Truth Hounds and SITU Research are calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials to be further investigated for their role in possible war crimes committed by Russian forces fighting there.

Robin Taylor, Human Rights WatchRobin Taylor is a research assistant for the Crisis and Conflict Division, specialized in leveraging open source research methods to investigate conflict-related human rights violations. This work has included investigations in Ukraine, Sudan, Israel-Palestine, and Haiti. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Taylor worked independently, conducting research for nongovernmental organizations and leading training workshops. He received his MSc in Advanced Research Methods in Criminology from the Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Kent. Robin is fluent in Norwegian and English.

Devon Lum was the research assistant for the Digital Investigations Lab in the technology and human rights division. He uses publicly available information and open source research tactics to assist and conduct investigations into a wide array of topics and regions. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Lum worked as a researcher and the coordinator of the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He received his BAs in Political Science and Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.

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