War dead in Ukraine: a special report
A little boy blown up by a mine at the beach. A young mother was shot in the forehead. A retired teacher killed in her home. Hundreds of soldiers are killing and dying every day. The old and the young and everyone in between.
A war can be measured by many parameters. Territory gained or lost. Geopolitical influence has increased or decreased. Treasure acquired or resources depleted. But for people suffering under the bombardment, who hear the whistle of incoming missiles, the crackle of gunfire in the streets and the groans of casualties through shattered windows, the death toll is the most telling tale of a war.
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In Ukraine, no one knows exactly what this toll is, except that many people have been killed.
An “endless death caravan”, said Petro Andryushchenko, an official from the devastated city of Mariupol.
In its latest updates, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said 4,509 civilians had been killed in the conflict. But it is clear that many thousands more have been killed. Ukraine’s police chief Ihor Klymenko said last week that prosecutors had opened criminal charges “for the deaths of more than 12,000 people found, among other things, in mass graves”.
And in Mariupol, the Black Sea city razed by Russian bombardment, Ukrainian officials in exile said examinations of mass graves using satellite images, testimonies and other evidence had led them to believe that at least 22,000 people had been killed – and possibly thousands more.
Casualty figures exclude the thousands believed to have been killed in territories held by Russian forces. And even where Ukraine has regained control, Klymenko said, it was premature to calculate the death toll in mass graves, as more are found every week.
Indeed, finding and identifying the dead is a tall order, said Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. said in a statement on Saturday, that it required global coordination beyond Ukraine’s national efforts. Prosecutor Iryna Venediktova said she met with the International Commission on Missing Persons, based in The Hague, to develop avenues of cooperation.
International and Ukrainian authorities have little access to besieged cities to conduct accurate counts, and urban targets, constant artillery fire and the static nature of fighting in the contested south and east only add to the death. and horror.
“People are being killed indiscriminately or suddenly or without rhyme or reason,” said Richard H. Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He said the incessant artillery fire is “killing and maiming people”.
“It creates enormous psychological stress on populations,” Mr. Kohn said, “like on fighters,” and “it lasts a very long time.”
The Russians, eager to preserve an aura of skill, underestimate their losses on the battlefield. The Ukrainians, desperate to maintain morale as the shells fall, do the same. Civilian casualties are an unknown variable, multiplied by macabre factors like collapsing buildings and unreported casualties from occupied cities.
Children are not protected from indiscriminate violence. The United Nations agency for the protection of children in emergencies has estimated that at least three children have died every day since the start of the war in February. This is only an estimate.
Mariupol – the city that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, relentless Russian bombardment and the savagery of war – continues to bury corpses.
“In our city there are a lot of mass graves, a lot of spontaneous graves, and some bodies are still in the street,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said last Monday.
This assessment has increased the fear of the losses suffered by the 20% of Ukraine currently under Russian occupation. Some places, such as Sievierodonetsk, were practically reduced to rubble by the advancing Russian forces.
Early in the war, as Russia tried unsuccessfully to take the capital, Kyiv, its forces added to the death toll with shocking brutality. In Bucha, they shot civilians in their cars, homes and gardens, left corpses in the street and even burned them and dumped them in a parking lot. And when the Russian armored columns retreated, they left more dead in their wake.
At least 1,500 civilians have been killed in the Kyiv region alone, according to Klymenko. They included two sisters at Bucha – one a retired teacher and the other disabled.
“Why would you kill a grandmother? asked Serhiy, a neighbor of the sisters.
The Ukrainian army suffers heavy losses. According to the government’s own estimates, as many as 200 soldiers die every day. In towns across the country, even those far from the front lines, military funerals are held almost daily for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, where the fighting is now heaviest.
The dead are often buried quickly and in shallow graves.
“I feel numb,” said Antoniy, a morgue worker in Lviv, western Ukraine. “Even when someone tells me a joke that I know is funny, I can’t laugh.”
Regardless of when or how war ends, Professor Kohn said, trauma, loss, displacement and fear all become “part of a country’s culture”.
Many Russians who were ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin to invade Ukraine under the false pretense of liberating the country from the Nazis are also not returning home. In April, Western countries estimated that Russia had lost around 15,000 troops in Ukraine; on Friday, Ukraine put the estimate at 33,000.
The true toll is unknown and will not come from Moscow: its last announcement, on March 25, indicated that a total of 1,351 Russian soldiers had died.
In the months since the invasion began, local news websites across Russia have compiled “memory pages” that list the names of fallen hometown soldiers. Then, this month, they took them down: a court ruled the lists were state secrets.
“We apologize,” said the website 74.ru in Chelyabinsk in Siberia, “to the mothers and fathers, wives and children, relatives and friends of the soldiers who died during the special military operation in Ukraine”.