More than 100,000 Ukrainian civilians are believed to have been killed in the year since Russia launched its brutal invasion – more than 10 times the current official death toll – according to the country’s leading war crimes prosecutor.
The horrific tally illustrates the scale of devastation in the country, which has fought a relentless onslaught from Vladimir Putin’s forces since their invasion on 24 February last year.
Speaking to The Independent, prosecutor Yuriy Belousov revealed his fears about the human cost on the civilian population.
“There could be 100,000 civilians killed across Ukraine, whose bodies will have to be found and identified once occupied territory is liberated,” Mr Belousov said. The current official death toll published by the UN this week puts the official death toll at 8,000.
Mr Belousov said Russia’s ruthless assault had resulted in an unprecedented number of war crimes and the discovery of thousands of unidentified bodies, often in mass graves.
He has been working with Ukrainian authorities to identify the victims. Of the more than 10,000 bodies found so far, more than 3,500 remain unidentified.
Mr Belousov’s work forms part of a new documentary, The Body in the Woods, which will be released by The Independent on 1 March. It follows the stories of Ukrainians seeking to identify their loved ones lost in the early months of the conflict and will be available to stream on Independent.tv and on Independent TV’s new app for smart TVs, including on platforms such as Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.
The documentary spotlights the raw and unfiltered devastation in towns surrounding key cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv which Russian forces bombarded heavily to capture in quick succession.
“In terms of missing persons, the problem is we really don’t know how people there are,” Mr Belousov said. There are currently 21,500 official missing people in Ukraine, a number expected to rise substantially.
The aftermath saw 3,326 civilians killed in March last year, the most deadly month in the conflict, as those left behind could only desperately try to piece together what was left of their lives.
Mr Belousov said that the numbers of unidentified casualties in territories currently occupied by Russia could be even larger than currently estimated.
“It is unique that the search for the missing and the investigation of war crimes is happening during active conflict. ln other countries they have started the search once the fighting has stopped,” he said.
“As we liberate territories we see that we face more and more such cases and we definitely need the help of international partners. It is a lot of technical work that demands equipment and specialists who can speed this process up because our system wasn’t ready for such a huge number of unidentified bodies. Definitely for Europe, this is unique.”
World leaders have this week reiterated their commitment to Ukraine, including US president Joe Biden who vowed to defeat Russia on a trip to Kyiv. “President Putin ordered his tanks to roll into Ukraine, he thought we would roll over. He was wrong,” he said.
As Ukraine marks the one-year anniversary, it is braced for a new wave of fighting, with both sides expected to ramp up their military offensives in the coming weeks.
Ukraine has called for more heavy weapons and ammunition from the West so it can hold off any Russian advance and replenish its military supplies and push forward its own counteroffensive.