- Ross Burley
The Yalivshchyna Burial Site: Mass graves after Russian invasion
The Eyes on Russia project is an open source project to map, document and verify significant incidents during the conflict in Ukraine. The aim of the project is to provide reliable information on the conflict through verified open source evidence. The lead resource of the Eyes on Russia project is the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map. This investigation is a result of that work.
The verification seen in this report will be logged in a central database where material is archived for future use by researchers, reporters as well as justice and accountability bodies.
In the weeks following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the city of Chernihiv, in Ukraine’s north, experienced heavy bombardment from Russian troops approaching from the Ukraine-Belarus border. As Russian forces withdraw from the area in April 2022, more evidence is coming to light of the civilian toll of the invasion.
As the civilian casualties of Russian bombardments increased, Chernihiv residents were required to make space for their dead. This investigation has revealed a series of mass graves in Yalivshchyna Forest that were created between February 26 and March 6 and throughout the month of March.
An initial estimate of the deceased buried at the Yalivshchyna sites, based on the number of headstones visible in footage from the ground posted on social media, lies between 323-381. The true figure is likely significantly higher. Ukrainian officials are reporting up to 700 killed in the city.
The imagery taken from the ground has been matched with recent high resolution satellite imagery to confirm the creation and location of these mass graves in Chernihiv.
Analysis of Open Source Material
After the discovery of mass graves in Ukraine’s Bucha, the Eyes on Russia team began investigating other potential mass burial sites in areas that experienced heavy fighting during Russia’s campaign in the Kiev and Chernihiv Oblasts.
The team discovered images attached to an article (Published April 1) released in Latvian-based Russian-language news site, Meduza, said to correspond to a burial site in the ‘Yalovshchinsky’ forest, close to the centre of Chernihiv. The location of ‘Yalovshchinsky’ forest can be seen in the screenshot below, and is located at these coordinates: 51.527611, 31.302965.
This aligned with claims made in an article from The Washington Post (published April 5) suggesting the presence of a mass burial site in Chernihiv, although providing no location-based or photographic evidence.
After identifying the forest of Yalivshchyna in the north of the city of Chernihiv, the team began using satellite imagery to identify a site matching the image [below] published to Meduza of the reported burial site (Credit: Lilia Yapparova / Meduza).
The image shows recently dispersed soil and dozens of identification cards, used as headstones, as well as an existing cemetery in the background.
Sentinel-2 imagery, accessed via Sentinel Hub, provided clear imagery of the area between February 26 and March 18 2022. The imagery reveals that, between February 26 and March 11, three large areas were cleared of trees near the existing burial ground at Yalivshchyna. The site of the clearings can be found at: 51.527611, 31.302965.
Further imagery from March 23, acquired from Planet, was required to provide more information. Below, the Planet imagery shows three sites connected by a dirt road.
(Imagery Credit: Planet Labs)
Satellite imagery from Planet, taken on March 18, shows the graves in the process of being dug.
(Imagery Credit: Planet Labs)
The team designated three clear and distinct burial sites. From West to East; Site A, B
and C. Investigators then geolocated the Meduza image to Site C, which is spatially the smallest of the three sites, using an additional video found on Telegram by the Eyes on Russia team.
The grave site can also be seen on a video which began widely circulating on March 6, where residents lowered dozens of caskets into trenches at Site C.
The video shows a trench at the North edge of Site C. The fact it was shared by March 6 narrows down the window of the events that prompted the need for mass graves to between February 24 to March 6. See the contextual reporting section for more.
A visual count of the headstones - based on an estimate made through the available videos outlined above - suggests there are between 229-263 graves at Yalivshchyna Sites B & C.
This count does not include Site A which, based on initial imagery, contains between 94 and 118 headstones at a minimum.
This takes the total count of headstones across Sites A, B and C to between 323-381.
Site A is, spatially, the largest of the three sites. Planet satellite imagery from March 18 shows trenches being dug to the north edge of Site A.
(Imagery Credit: Planet Labs)
Maxar imagery from March 19 and March 22 provides more detailed accounts of the status of all three sites. In the space of two days, it would appear that new trenches had been dug at Site A, and the distrubed land at Site B had expanded. No new activity is recorded at Site C, except from the removal of displaced earth from prior trenches.
Contextual Reporting: Related Events and Civilian Casualties in Chernihiv (Feb-24 to Mar-06)
Sources in contact with the Eyes on Russia team have provided information that internet access in Chernihiv has been extremely inconsistent since the Russian invasion began in February. This has somewhat been corroborated by Netblocks, which reported multiple outages in Chernihiv over the first week of March 2022.
As a result, the EoR team has recognised a relative lack of digital evidence originating in Chernihiv despite the ferocity of the fighting in and around the city. Now that the Russian forces have withdrawn from the city, more reports are likely to emerge regarding Russia’s activity in the city and wider oblast. Unfortunately, as a result, the project is lacking a detailed account of events in the city in the period of the burial site’s creation and expansion.
We will continue to monitor evidence as it emerges from Chernihiv and update the Russia-Ukraine monitor with relevant information. For now, this grave site acts as evidence of the extent of the violence in the city.