Mass-casualty Burials in the Uncontrolled Territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions

On February 16, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation opened a criminal case over the discovery of four mass graves in the occupied Luhansk Region and one in the occupied Donetsk Region. It is alleged that the remains of those killed in indiscriminate shelling by the Ukrainian armed forces were found there.

Reports of mass-casualty burials have been received almost since the beginning of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. One of the first reports appeared in late September 2014 and regarded a mass burial site discovered near the Mine №22  “Communarsk”) in the suburbs of Makiyivka. [1] It was then reported that the remains of nine tortured locals had been found at a temporary Ukrainian military location, on the territory of the mine itself. Amnesty International then confirmed that four men aged 25 to 30 found in a mass grave near the Communarsk mine were indeed victims of Ukrainian combatants. However, the other five bodies, including those of women, were found in an area controlled exclusively by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). [2] Since then, there have been no reports of mass graves found in non-governmentcontrolled areas of eastern Ukraine.
Between August and October 2021, five mass graves were reported. [3] These burial sites are allegedly located in the town of Snizhne, the town of Slovyanoserbsk, the Sokolohorivka residential area in Pervomaisk, the village of Vydatne-1 (also known as Vydne-1), and the village of Verkhnoshevyrivka. It has been stated that at least 295 civilians who died as a result of indiscriminate shelling by Ukrainian armed forces in 2014 were exhumed from these burial sites.

Locations of alleged burial sites, according to pro-Russian media reports.

Truth Hounds analysed mentions of these locations from 2014 in official statements by the Russian Federation and the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and DPR, media, social networks, and the testimonies of civilians. Truth Hounds also consulted with the Department of Forensic Science at the Bohomolets National Medical University to understand the accuracy of information concerning the very existence of these burial sites,as well as the involvement of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Snizhne

From the beginning of Summer 2014, the town was under the control of non-state armed groups controlled by the Russian Federation (hereinafter – NSAGs). On July 15, 2014, an airstrike on Snizhne occurred, killing 11 civilians. [4] Afterwards, pro-Russian forces, as well as Russian media, reported that the attack was carried out by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, whike the Ukrainian authorities reported that the attack was carried out by an unknown aircraft. [5] This is the only instance in which there was at least a theoretical possibility of Ukrainian forces being involved in an attack on the civilian population in Snizhne. In future cases, Ukrainian armed forces were not present either in or near Snizhne.

Slovyanoserbsk

Representatives of the so-called LPR have only twice reported on cases of civilians being killed by combatants of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the vicinity of Slovyanoserbsk. The first is the alleged murder of two residents of the village of Sokolniki (near Slovyanoserbsk) on October 21, 2014. [6] The second concerns the Ukrainian military allegedly dumping flyers infected with tuberculosis over the village. [7] There has been no other information disseminated by the so-called LPR relating to civilian deaths in Slovyanoserbsk at the hands of Ukrainian combatants. Ukrainian armed forces were not present in Slovyanoserbsk itself or nearby after the summer of 2014.

Sokolohorivka, Pervomaisk

The settlement is located to the northeast of Pervomaisk. Pervomaisk itself was badly affected by shelling carried out by Ukrainian artillery (about 200 civilians were killed in early August 2014, according to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission). We might assume that some of these victims may have been temporarily buried in a mass grave in Sokolohorivka due to the constant intense shelling of Pervomaisk at that time. Sokolohorivka is the most remote area of the city center.
News of civilian deaths in this settlement appeared on September 1, 2021 ( i.e. after the announcement of the presence of mass-casualty burial sites there). [8] On August 31, 2021, representatives of the so-called LPR reburied the remains of 30 civilians who were allegedly found in a mass grave. [9] Ukrainian armed forces have not been present in Pervomaisk – or nearby – since August 2014.

Vydatne-1 (also known as Vydne-1)

If a mass grave was indeed found in the village, it is most likely that the dead from the southern part of Luhansk were buried there. However, this settlement never appeared in reports, media materials, or personal testimonies before November 2021. It was then announced that the remains of 165 bodies [10] had been found, which, according to the executive of the so-called LPR, had been brought there from both Luhansk and nearby settlements.

Verkhnoshevyrivka

According to representatives of the so-called LPR, at the end of August 2021, the remains of 36 civilians were allegedly found in the village, located near the town of Krasnodon. [11] As in the case of other settlements described above, the village appeared in pro-Russian media reports only in August 2021, when mass graves were allegedly discovered there. There were no reports of civilian casualties from the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the village or nearby.

On July 22, 2021, the Russian Federation filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights over the “war crimes of the Ukrainian army and nationalist battalions in the Donbas”. Established in August 2021, “interdepartmental commissions to search for missing persons, search for burial places of bodies (remains) of the dead (deceased) in areas of armed conflict in the Donbass” in the so-called DPR and LPR began to remove the remains on August 11, 2021. It is these commissions that seem to have found the remains of 292 people on the territories of the so-called DPR and LPR. [12] At present, the commissions’ statements have cast doubt on their ability to conduct independent, reliable investigations. First of all, it is peculiar that there was no information about mass burials in the mentioned locations either in the media, in blogs, in comments, or in posts on social networks. According to information provided to the media of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, during the reburial in Vydne-1, one person stated that he knew that his brother’s remains were in that mass grave. [13] At the same time, this is the only evidence of the actual presence of these supposed mass graves. It is unknown how important information such as the burial of relatives and loved ones in mass graves escaped even the slightest publicity. The commissions, in turn, have made no comments on this fact, despite it directly affecting any further assessments of burial site information. Another doubtful point is the clear position of the commissions regarding the times of death of the buried. Complete skeletonisation with ligament disintegration and bone dislocation takes place over the course of five years. The age of remains can be determined using two methods:

  • Method for determining the duration of decalcification of bone tissue: This method establishes the age of bone remains through the process of decalcification of bone tissue. For this method, it is necessary to take into account the acidity of the soil; the more acidic the soil, the more feasible it is to date the remains. However, in the current case, we are faced with a steppe climate in which soil acidity is below average. Therefore, it is impossible to determine the age of the remains using this method.
  • Emission spectral analysis method: According to this method, the evaluation of spectrograms determines the age of bone tissue based on the presence of manganese, aluminum, silicon, iron, and strontium. The method determines the age of remains within 4-10 years. Thus, the limitation period of the remains is 2006–2016. It is impossible to determine the time of burial in more detail, and therefore it is impossible to determine with any certainty whether the victims were victims of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2014 or were buried in mass graves at any other time up until Summer 2016.

International organisations claim there are mass graves related to the armed conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Human Rights Watch testifies to the exhumation of a mass grave in Slovyansk. [14] The authors of the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights state that they were aware of mass graves near Slovyansk and near the
Communarsk mine, though representatives of the UN’s mission were not allowed to investigate these sites. [15] Representatives of some pro-Russian media outlets report that the UN did not pay attention to cases of mass burials, [16] while others claim that the UN did inspect mass graves, referring to the mission’s survey near the Communarsk mine. [17] Over eight years of interviewing witnesses and victims of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, Truth Hounds has recorded information concerning mass burial sites near Lysychansk, Horlivka, Orikhovo (near Antratsyt), Holubivka (Kirovsk), Pervomaisk, and Chornukhino. The only place in relative proximity to the locations of mass burial sites mentioned by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation is Hrakove Cemetery in the north of Pervomaisk.

“They came to us at night and told me: you will work. In the morning, I and other detainees were put in a car and taken to Hrakove Cemetery. There, we dug pits (graves). A car came and brought corpses. The bodies were in bags – five per one plastic bag. We put them in the pit without taking them out of the bags and buried them.”

Hrakove Cemetery

This testimony refers to the burial of victims of NSAGs. Truth Hounds has no information from witnesses, media, or social networks about any burial mentioned by the so-called DPR or LPR commissions. Moreover, the commissions and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation not only report on the cases but also provide legal qualifications. As such, recent reports mention civilian casualties. Meanwhile, it is not specified how it was established that the dead were civilians. Even if the bodies of the dead were indeed found at the burial sites and if the remains really belonged to local residents, this does not mean that these residents were not participants in the armed conflict and were therefore illegitimate targets.
In addition to pointing to civilians, the information from the Investigative Committee refers to deaths resulting from indiscriminate attacks. Leaving to one side the question as to why it was necessary to bury people who, according to the Committee, died either from shelling or stepping on an enemy mine, it remains unclear how the commissions and the Investigative Committee were able to conclude that the attacks were indiscriminate. Such attacks are indeed prohibited by international humanitarian law (IHL). They involve firing on both military and civilian targets. Furthermore, the attacking party is not seeking to hit a specific military facility, but is shelling the territory as a whole. Even from this succinct explanation, it is
clear that the very suggestion of the attacks being of an indiscriminate nature means acknowledging the existence of military facilities alongside civilian ones. In addition, the mention of ineligibility means that – in order to establish a violation of IHL – it is necessary not only to prove the fact of hitting a civilian object but also to demonstrate that such a hit was the result of an
indiscriminate attack against such targets. Attaining proof of such is a highly complicated process, especially when it comes to events that occurred eight years ago.
Finally, the Investigation Committee seems to attach the term genocide to indiscriminate attacks. The term genocide – or the crime of crimes, as it is called – can be attached to an act only when a genocidal intent on the part of the perpetrator(s) is established. That is to say when there is an intention to destroy all or part of a nation or ethnic, religious, or racial group. Genocide through indiscriminate attacks is something of an oxymoron, given that the latter implies an indifference on the part of the attacker as to who and what they hit, rather than an intention to completely or partially destroy a specific group.
Therefore, the information published by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and picked up by the Russian media is extremely politicised and cannot be taken as given. It seems, unfortunately, that Russia is once again seeking to exploit human tragedy in order to orchestrate a kind of show trial. It also seems that Russia is once again forgetting that while such sham trials may take place in Russia, they do not at the international level. The lessons of Nuremberg, despite their protection by the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, have not been learned. Instead of politicising the deaths of civilians in eastern Ukraine, Russia could, as Ukraine has done, agree to cooperate with the International Criminal Court and provide it with information on possible crimes it has identified. Ukraine has, for example, conducted investigations and Ukrainian courts have handled lawsuits and delivered verdicts relating to events in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, in conjunction with both representatives of Ukrainian combatants and NSAGs. This demonstrates a commitment to the idea of justice and a concern for historical truth that Russia would do well to emulate. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the cheap imitation of justice
currently administered by the Russian Federation. Consequently, we cannot draw conclusions about the existence of mass graves or whether the Armed Forces of Ukraine have any relation to them. The only available information relating to these burial sites stems from statementsin pro-Russian media and the results of the work of the commissions of the so-called DPR and LPR. There has been no evidence provided by the local population and no conclusionsfrom investigations by international organisations. Moreover, there are no signs of genocide. Finally, if these mass graves were indeed discovered, the question
remains as to who buried the people found there.


  1. 1 – Донбасс в ужасе: в братской могиле жертв нацгвардии нашли беременную: https://www.ntv.ru/novosti/1220116.
    2 – Eastern Ukraine conflict: Summary killings, misrecorded and misreported:
    https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/10/eastern-ukraine-conflict-summary-killings-misrecorded-and-misreported.
    3 – Возбуждено уголовное дело об обнаружении массовых захоронений мирных жителей на территории Донбасса:
    https://sledcom.ru/news/item/1656580.
    4 – Авианалет на Снежное: ополченцы сообщают о погибших мирных гражданах: vesti.ru/article/1842254; г.Снежное
    15.07.2014 Авиабомбардировка мирных жителей Украинскими карателями / Спасение ребёнка:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIoXS9lgJBY.
    5 – Обстрел Снежного совершил неизвестный самолет – СНБО: https://korrespondent.net/ukraine/events/3392678-
    obstrel- snezhnoho-sovershyl-neyzvestnyi-samolet-snbo.
    6 – Славяносербске почтили память погибших мирных жителей села Сокольники: https://mir-lug.info/novostiterotdelenij/v- slavyanoserbske-pochtili-pamyat-pogibshih-mirnyh-zhitelej-sela-sokolniki.
    7 – «Туберкулезные «сторублевки»: жителей оккупации напугали странным фейком:
    https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/tuberkulioznie-storubliovki-zhitelej-okkupatsii-napugali-feikom/30988607.html
    8 – «Хоронили в огородах», – жительница Первомайска о событиях 2014 года: https://gtrklnr.com/2021/09/01/xoroniliv- ogorodax-zhitelnica-pervomajska-o-sobytiyax-2014-goda.
    9 – В ЛНР перезахоронили останки тридцати жертв конфликта в Донбассе: https://ria.ru/20210831/donbass1748041586.html.
    10 – Церемония перезахоронения останков 115 жертв ВСУ состоялась в луганском поселке Видное:
    https://lug- info.com/news/ceremoniya-perezahoroneniya-ostankov-115-zhertv-vsu-sostoyalas-v-luganskomposelke-vidnoe.
    11 – Из массового захоронения в Донбассе извлекли останки 36 жертв конфликта: https://ria.ru/20210924/donbass1751688120.html.
    12 – Спецгруппа с начала работы извлекла из захоронений в ЛНР останки 292 жертв ВСУ:
    https://lug- info.com/news/specgruppa-s-nachala-raboty-izvlekla-iz-zahoronenij-v-lnr-ostanki-292-
    zhertv-vsu.
    13 – Церемония перезахоронения останков 115 жертв ВСУ состоялась в луганском поселке Видное:
    https://lug- info.com/news/ceremoniya-perezahoroneniya-ostankov-115-zhertv-vsu-sostoyalas-v-luganskomposelke-vidnoe.
    14 – Dispatches: Mass Grave Found in Eastern Ukraine: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/24/dispatches-mass-gravefound- eastern-ukraine.
    15 – Эксперты ООН не имеют возможности расследовать сообщения о массовых захоронениях в Украине:
    https://news.un.org/ru/audio/2014/10/1024871.
    16 – Тема массовых захоронений под Донецком не нашла отражения в докладе ООН: https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnayapanorama/1492784.
    17 – Миссия ООН расследует сообщения о захоронениях под Донецком: https://m.infox.ru/news/245/136840-missiaoon- rassleduet-soobsenia-o-zahoroneniah-pod-doneckom.