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Russian invasion of Kharkiv, Ukraine, left hundreds of civilians dead and infrastructure devastated, reveals new Airwars report

Between February 24th and May 13th, 2022, Russian forces invaded the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, resulting in the alleged deaths of 275 to 438 civilians due to explosive weapons. Airwars, a research organisation, has in a new report documented 200 incidents of civilian harm during this period, with reports of up to 829 injured civilians. Of the identified victims, at least 30 children, 52 women, and 61 men were likely killed by Russian forces. This research provides a detailed database of civilian harm in Kharkiv, offering insights into the impact on residents, damage to infrastructure, disruption of essential services, and challenges in recording casualties accurately.

Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, suffered heavy damage during the invasion due to its proximity to the Russian border and its large Russian-speaking population. Russian forces entered the region, shelling cities and villages. While Kharkiv city itself was not occupied, it witnessed intense fighting and a significant exodus of residents. Ukrainian forces successfully defended the city, which boosted morale early in the invasion. By the end of April, Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive, pushing Russian forces out of the city’s surroundings. The population of Kharkiv city was estimated to have returned to around one million by June 2022, but many residents have yet to return to the wider Kharkiv region.

The research by Airwars aimed to create a comprehensive archive of civilian harm incidents reported by local sources during the “Battle of Kharkiv.” The data revealed that civilian harm incidents occurred almost daily during the first two months of the invasion, with a significant number of casualties reported in the initial days of fighting. In 95% of cases, civilians were the only reported victims of Russian actions, indicating the potential indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas.

The research highlighted various aspects of life under bombardment in Kharkiv. Many civilians were killed or injured in their homes, as residential buildings were hit by artillery shells or strikes. Routine activities such as buying groceries or waiting for public transport also posed risks, with reports of civilians being harmed during these tasks. The destruction of critical infrastructure, including healthcare facilities, had severe consequences for civilians’ access to essential services. The research identified incidents where hospitals, pharmacies, and ambulances were damaged, hindering medical treatment for the injured. Additionally, the information environment was complex, with disinformation and conflicting narratives making it challenging to ascertain accurate casualty records.

Explosive weapons, particularly artillery fire, were the primary cause of civilian harm in Kharkiv. Cluster munitions were also documented in several incidents, and unexploded ordnance posed ongoing risks to civilians even after the initial campaign period. However, the number of recorded incidents related to explosive hazards may not reflect the full extent of land contamination in the region.

The research also highlighted critical gaps in casualty records, with limited information available about the identities of victims. Privacy policies in Ukraine, challenges in recovering and identifying victims, and restricted access to occupied areas contributed to this gap. The difficulty in documenting civilian harm within active combat areas, safety concerns related to unexploded ordnance, and communication limitations due to infrastructure damage further hindered the collection of accurate information.

In conclusion, the research conducted by Airwars provides a comprehensive understanding of the civilian harm inflicted during the Battle of Kharkiv. The severity of the harm underscores the urgent need to protect civilians in conflict zones, particularly in densely populated areas. The long-lasting effects of the conflict on civilian populations necessitate sustained efforts to address the consequences and provide support to affected communities.