From February 24th to May 13th 2022, between 275 and 438 civilians were alleged to have been killed by explosive weapons when Russian forces invaded the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv.
Airwars researchers documented all open source accounts of civilian harm, identifying 200 harm incidents during the short period known as the ‘Battle of Kharkiv’. Alongside the almost daily reported civilian deaths, up to 829 civilians were reported injured. In cases where the identity of the victims were reported by local sources, Airwars identified at least 30 children, 52 women and 61 men likely killed by Russian forces.
This research represents perhaps the most granular openly available database on civilian harm in the densely populated oblast that borders Russia.
In bringing together the stories shared by local residents, journalists and civil society organisations, the following research brief offers an insight into life under bombardment. We present our findings below on where and how local sources reported harm to the residents of Kharkiv, how critical infrastructure has been damaged and how essential services have been disrupted. We also present our analysis of the information environment, and the unique challenges of accurate casualty recording in this complex battleground.
Battle of Kharkiv
Our casualty recording efforts cover all local allegations of civilian harm from explosive weapons throughout Kharkiv oblast, for the period when the Kharkiv city and its surroundings were subject to an intense period of fighting – otherwise known as the ‘Battle of Kharkiv’.
The second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv has been among the hardest hit urban areas in the war. Located some 40km from the Russian border, with a large Russian speaking population and close ties to Moscow’s economy, it was a key target when the invasion began on February 24, 2022.
As Russian forces invaded Ukraine from multiple directions, thousands of troops entered the Kharkiv region. Cities and villages were heavily shelled. In a few weeks key towns and cities in Kharkiv oblast were occupied by Russian forces, including Izyum, Kupiansk and Balaklia.
Kharkiv city itself was never occupied but instead became the scene of intense fighting and a mass exodus. Pre-war analysis estimated its population at 1.4 million, but by March 2022 that number had allegedly fallen as low as 300,000. Yet the success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in defending Kharkiv is believed to have played a significant role in bolstering morale in the early days of the Russian invasion.
At the end of April 2022, Ukrainian forces began a counter offensive in Kharkiv. By May 13th, Russian forces were pushed from the surroundings of the city. The eventual Russian retreat was described as one of the Ukrainian military’s fastest advances since Russian troops abandoned their assault on Kyiv. In June 2022, Mayor Ihor Terekhov estimated Kharkiv city’s population had returned to around one million.
However, in the wider Kharkiv region, most occupied areas were only reclaimed following the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in September 2022.
Today Kharkiv city is largely calm, though occasional Russian shelling continues in the oblast. The city’s infrastructure remains devastated while the human impact can be counted both in the lives lost and the large number of residents who have still not yet returned.
The archiving process
Our new archive contains crucial details about where and how civilians were harmed, as reported by local sources during the war in Kharkiv.
Our open source research is intended to be the starting point for investigators, journalists, human rights groups and families and individuals affected by this conflict, as we aggregate and preserve all local allegations to build a permanent database of harm. It is also aimed at humanising those harmed in war, and to make it clear to powerful militaries around the world that civilian harm, even in the most intense modern urban battlefields, can and must be recorded.
Our estimates of civilian harm are not definitive, as, given the widespread scale of casualties, it is likely that other incidents were not covered by sources we have tracked.
Our methodology note outlines in more detail how we applied our casualty recording methodology to this dense and complex battleground.
Frequency and intensity of harm incidents
Civilian harm incidents were recorded almost daily for the first two months of the invasion. This intense period of battle was the most deadly for civilians: in the first five days of fighting alone, between 18 and 38 civilians were reported killed, and up to another 119 wounded.
In one incident tracked by Airwars on April 10th, a community official in the city of Zolochiv told Suspilne TV that “since the morning, Zolochiv has been under fire almost all day, and for the last two and a half hours it has been non-stop.” In April 2022, the Mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, described the city as being bombed “day and night.”
Even as the Ukrainian Armed Forces were pushing back Russian troops from Kharkiv city and its surroundings towards the end of April, civilian harm incidents continued throughout the rest of the oblast: the day before analysts considered Ukraine had likely won the Battle for the city of Kharkiv, at least two civilians were reported killed in incidents beyond AFU front lines in Shebelynka, Derhachi and Balaklia.
Civilians were usually the only reported casualties
A key debate throughout the war has been the extent to which Russian forces have been striking legitimate military targets. Russian officials accuse Ukraine of placing military targets near civilian population centres, while Ukraine has claimed that the strikes are deliberately indiscriminate.
Our data shows that in 95% of cases where civilians were allegedly killed or injured (189 incidents), local sources reported that civilians were the only victims of Russian actions, and did not mention any other military object or Ukrainian military personnel harmed.
While public reporting on Ukrainian military casualties is forbidden under Ukrainian law, which may be a factor in the relatively low numbers, this is a finding that echoes other on the ground reporting from human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch.
In three incidents, the sources were conflicted or unclear as to whether among those reportedly harmed were also members of the Ukrainian military or only civilians.
In one incident, on March 26th, Russian forces reportedly shelled the town of Barvinkove in Izyum district, resulting in the deaths of at least four Ukrainian soldiers and one civilian. Multiple Ukrainian sources, including on social media, covered the event, noting that the shelling caused a fire in a secondary school. One source known to come from a pro-Russian account claimed that the school was being used by Ukrainian forces to create a “human shield” for Ukrainian soldiers. It reiterated that a Russian missile caused the casualties but referred to those killed and injured as soldiers. See our methodology note for how we assess and account for conflicting information.
Life under bombardment
In documenting civilian harm, local sources revealed key insights into civilians’ daily lives, and the far-reaching human toll of war.
Harmed at home
In at least 60 incidents (nearly a third of all allegations), civilians were reported to have been killed or injured at home when Russian artillery shelling or strikes hit residential buildings or houses. In one incident, on March 17th 2022, a mother and her four-year-old daughter were reportedly sleeping in their house when the shelling started. Sources claimed that the woman covered her daughter with her body to protect her. She was killed in the incident while her daughter was injured.
Sources reported civilians killed in their kitchens and bedroom. Details provided by local media give an insight into lives lost: of a Russian woman who had been living in Kharkiv for ten years; of a ninety-six year old man who survived the Holocaust, of two neighbours about to have lunch together – all killed in their homes by alleged Russian bombardment.
Local sources also recorded stories of civilians killed while running for safety. On April 6th, 2022, a 33-year-old civilian was reported killed after an alleged Russian shelling of Zolochiv, Kharkiv. A local official, Viktor Kovalenko, stated that the young man was running “from his house to the basement of his neighbours” for shelter “because he didn’t have his own. And he didn’t run a metre and a half – his legs were blown off by an explosion.”
Civilians were also killed or injured while buying groceries and getting other essential supplies, according to local sources.
On February 28th, four civilians, including a child, were reportedly killed collecting drinking water after leaving their bomb shelter. On March 6th, a woman was severely injured while queuing in front of a shop. And on March 24th, in one deadly incident, six civilians were likely killed and up to 17 others injured in an alleged Russian shelling on a supermarket.
Many examples of daily routines disrupted by tragedy were recorded by local sources. In one incident, a mother was reportedly walking with her daughter in the street when an alleged Russian shell landed close by, killing her and seriously injuring her daughter. In another incident, an elderly woman feeding cats in a park was killed by alleged Russian artillery shelling. Sources also reported a mother was killed while she was on the phone coming back from a store, in front of her house. Her neighbour told Suspilne News that “If, perhaps, she had come a minute earlier, she would have had time… Two children were left without their mother.”
In March and May, in two separate incidents, several volunteers and workers at Feldman Ecopark, a zoo located north of Kharkiv city, were killed and seriously injured by reported Russian shelling. Among the victims was a fifteen-year old boy who died while attempting to evacuate the park’s animals.
Destruction of a city
In Kharkiv city, the highest number of incidents of civilian harm were recorded in Saltivskyi, in Kyivsky and Shevchenkivskiy city districts, the northern and eastern parts of the city. In September 2022, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said in an interview that ‘there are some residential areas where there is nothing left’.
In Izyum, a city located some 100km south of Kharkiv, which was occupied by Russian forces for over six months, Ukrainian officials estimated that between 70 and 80% of residential buildings have been destroyed.
Airwars identified 56 incidents where civilian infrastructure was damaged alongside reports of the deaths and injuries of Kharkiv residents. For the purposes of this report, ‘infrastructure’ has been defined as any mention of the following key terms by sources: hospital, school, agriculture, humanitarian delivery services, humanitarian evacuation routes, religious institutions, marketplaces, energy supplies (gas, power, and water infrastructure).
We also monitored damage to administration buildings, shops, hostels, parks – including a zoo -, railway stations, a prison facility, and a cemetery.
The incidents related to infrastructure damage tracked by Airwars only reflects those cases where civilian deaths and injuries were also recorded, providing just a small snapshot into the wider picture of damaged infrastructure in Kharkiv.
Damage and destruction to infrastructure have reverberating effects on civilian lives. In one civilian harm incident tracked by Airwars, a gas pipeline was damaged following an alleged Russian strike, leading to more than 500 families being left temporarily without gas supply. In another incident, in May 2022, a 46-year-old woman was reportedly killed in her backyard while she was cooking over a fire due to a lack of electricity.
Access to healthcare
Among the incidents with reference to infrastructure damage tracked by Airwars, the highest number of mentions were related to healthcare institutions, directly impacting access to medical treatment for civilians.
Airwars documented damage to 16 healthcare facilities in incidents where civilians were also killed or injured. Among these were hospitals, a blood donation centre, a pharmacy, and an ambulance. On March 3rd, a Syrian doctor, described as a gynaecologist originally from Deir Ezzor, was killed when an alleged Russian mortar hit the Kharkiv Regional hospital.
In a pattern similar to what is often reported in Syria, Airwars also tracked three allegations of so-called double-tap strikes, where a strike is followed by a second round of strikes just as emergency services or nearby civilians respond to the incident. These incidents were also captured by the Attacks on Healthcare Project, which documented cases of multiple strikes targeting the same hospitals in Kharkiv: “One was hit five times, and another was hit four times”. They added that between February 2022 and December 2022, the Kharkiv region recorded the highest number of damaged or destroyed hospitals in Ukraine.
In documenting civilian harm, local sources also often reported on the challenge that Russian bombardment was having on the ability of rescuers to respond to the incidents.
In a civilian harm incident reported in March, Kharkiv Today reported that rescuers “could not even drive up” to Kharkiv “due to constant volleys of enemy artillery.” One month later, in another incident in Izyum, Russian forces reportedly hit evacuation buses, causing civilian casualties. One local source claimed that due to destroyed roads and bridges in the area, it was impossible to bring medicine and other vital aid, “as well as the fact that the Russian occupiers prohibit movement between villages in the community.”
The fighting in Kharkiv oblast mainly took place with the use of explosive weapons.
Civilians were predominantly reported killed or injured by artillery fire (accounting for 77% of incidents recorded), while the remaining incidents of harm resulted from airstrikes (eight incidents) or unexploded ordnance (six incidents).
Between 12 and 14 civilians were recorded killed, and between four and 11 injured, by planted explosives and unexploded ordnance. In one such case, sources reported that two men in their 30s were killed when their car drove over an anti-tank mine while driving to Chornohlazivka village. They were reportedly on their way to visit one of their mothers. According to a local official, the two “died on the spot, the car was blown to pieces. The occupiers had recently withdrawn from this village, they could have left it behind.”
The limited number of incidents related to mines or other explosive hazards tracked by Airwars does not reflect the scale of land contamination in the Kharkiv region, given the fact that harm related to contamination is likely to occur and be reported well beyond the initial campaign period.
Kharkiv Chief Prosecutor, Oleksandr Filchakov, explained to AP News that “no one can say now the total percentage of territory in Kharkiv that is mined, we are finding them everywhere.”
In 14 incidents, local sources accused Russian forces of having used cluster munitions. The use by Moscow of such weapons in Ukraine has been widely documented. In April 2022, Airwars showed the impact of a single Russian cluster munition that struck a hospital and blood donation centre in Kharkiv on the second day of the invasion. Damage was reported in a 350m radius. The same month, three deminers were killed and four others injured while trying to remove alleged Russian mines. Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy stated that cluster munitions were among the munitions that exploded during the operation.
In one incident, local sources mentioned the use of a projectile by Russian forces that fell on a factory with a parachute, also referred to as “parachute bomb”. The alleged Russian incident led to one civilian killed and up to six others injured. By April, the use of such weapons was already being reported in Kharkiv city by the Mayor of Kharkiv.
The information environment
As per Airwars’ standard methodology, all incidents are categorised according to the nature of information identified in relation to the incident: incidents where all sources are in agreement about the cause and case of harm are marked ‘fair’, incidents where sources disagree as to who was responsible or if civilian casualties occurred are marked ‘contested’, and incidents where there are very few sources or only generic information reported are marked ‘weak’. See our methodology note for details.
In Kharkiv, ‘fair’ events – where sources accused Russian forces for civilian harm accounted for 138 incidents, and between 275 and 387 civilian casualties.
Our team also recorded two additional ‘fair’ incidents where all sources attributed civilian harm to Ukrainian Armed Forces. These incidents account for between two and five civilian deaths. As this Brief focuses on alleged Russian actions, these two incidents were not included in our casualty totals, though they continue to be investigated by our research team.
‘Weak’ incidents accounted for 60 incidents, and between 41 and 42 casualties. All of these ‘weak’ cases accused Russian forces of being responsible for the civilian harm. In two incidents, Airwars found civilian casualties where some local sources alleged that harm resulted from the Ukrainian Armed Forces as they were pushing back Russian forces.
Although concerns around disinformation are widespread, Airwars found that individual civilian harm allegations were rarely contested in any level of detail. Where civilian harm claims were dismissed or accused of being fraudulent, accounts mainly focused on general trends.
Two types of information were found to typically be put forward by sources discrediting local civilian harm claims: either the source claimed that harm was caused by Ukrainian Armed Forces, or that Ukrainian troops were deliberately installing military equipment in residential areas or inside civilian infrastructure.
This includes claims by the Russian state at the highest levels, that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have used human shields. In March 2022, President Vladimir Putin alleged that Ukrainian security forces used Indian students in Kharkiv as “human shields” after an Indian student was reported killed in Kharkiv city by Russian shelling.
Other claims communicated by the Russian Ministry of Defense include allegations that Ukrainian forces deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure to protect sensitive information; such as the Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkiv, in which nuclear technology was apparently being developed. On March 1st, the building of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration and Svobody Square in Kharkiv city were hit by a rocket, leading to six to 11 casualties, among them a child, and up to 35 civilians were allegedly injured. Russian officials alleged that the strike was voluntarily conducted by Ukrainian forces against Ukrainian civilians ‘dissatisfied with the city administration’; while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed Russia conducted the bombing and that ‘there were no military targets in the square’.
Russia has not admitted to any civilian casualties yet and official statements published by the Ministry of Defense repeatedly affirmed that only military targets and combatants were hit by Russian shelling or strikes.
Critical gaps in casualty records
Key details of victims missing
In a number of incidents our researchers encountered a major gap in the information publicly available – the identities of the victims. In Ukrainian language reporting there has been few mention of names of victims, and limited information related to their gender, age or occupation.
This differs dramatically from other conflicts Airwars has monitored, including US airstrikes in Yemen and Iraq, Russian bombing in Syria, and Israeli bombardment in Gaza and Syria.
As an example, in one intense month of Russian and Syrian government bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo in July 2016, our team tracked 76 different civilian harm incidents – in which we recorded 187 named victims. In March 2022, in the Kharkiv region, we tracked 70 separate civilian harm incidents from Russian strikes, but only a total of 37 named victims.
Ukraine also has a functioning state, with security, investigative, forensic and medico-legal structures that worked to record civilian harm since earlier Russian advances on the country. In Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria such official structures are either lacking or distrusted by civilians. As such civilians have been forced to fill the gaps – posting details of the dead on social media, particularly Facebook.
Other reasons might involve security risks related to documentation of civilian harm within areas of active combat such as Kharkiv, including difficult or forbidden access for civilians to destroyed or collapsed buildings in urban areas looking for their loved ones due to safety issues relating to unexploded ordnance, as well as internet and/or electricity blackouts that prevented local people from communicating information to the outside world.
Local sources documenting civilian harm in Ukraine reveal key challenges in capturing accurate civilian casualty records due to the difficulties in recovering and identifying victims. In one incident tracked by Airwars, local sources reported that it took 20 days before a woman and her 11-year old son were found buried under the rubble of their house.
Some experts have said that it could take years to find and identify civilian victims, with Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group estimating that nearly 2,000 individuals remain missing in Kharkiv oblast alone.
Information in occupied areas
The identification of civilians killed in the conflict has been particularly challenging in Kharkiv Oblast given that many areas were occupied by Russian forces for several months. Several incidents identified by Airwars were only widely reported after Ukrainian forces had retaken control of certain areas. In Izyum, for example, Airwars identified open sources that described the death of an entire family in May 2022, when their car drove over an alleged Russian mine as they attempted to evacuate Kharkiv. It was not until October 2022 that police forces were able to report the incident for the first time through on the ground interviews and a site visit.
In areas under occupation, Kharkiv governor Oleg Synegubov stated that “the first thing they [Russian forces] did was to cut people off from any information”.
In another incident, also in Izyum city, on March 9, 2022, the Russian military was reported to have launched airstrikes on and then shelled a five story residential building – causing it to collapse. The incident killed between 47 to 54 people, including many families who were trapped in the debris. The incident was only widely reported in September, when Ukrainian forces retook control of the area.
In October 2022, Ukrainian authorities reported that they found more than 500 bodies in newly retaken areas. The causes of death are still unknown, while many families are still waiting for the results of DNA tests and additional investigations to know the fate of their loved ones.
In many incidents recorded by Airwars, sources recorded mentions of investigations launched by the Kharkiv Prosecutor Office while the conflict is still ongoing. The outcomes of these investigations are likely to reveal new details about the nature and scale of civilian harm.
Airwars will continue to update our archive as new information comes to light.
While the full human toll of the war is not yet fully known, the harm documented in Kharkiv reveals once again the devastating impact of conflict on civilian populations.
The severity and nature of this human cost of war underlines the need for greater measures to protect civilians in conflict across the world, particularly in densely populated areas. As documented widely by local sources, the level and severity of harm is likely to have long lasting and reverberating effects for many years to come.