The toll of the war in Ukraine is impossible to know after three weeks

UKRAINE – Russia has been at war in Ukraine for three weeks and has faced attacks and bombing of several of its cities. On Wednesday, a theater in the city of Mariupol carrying hundreds, or even more than a thousand people, was destroyed by bombing, according to the municipality. It is currently still impossible to know the toll of the victims.

Just as today it is still impossible to determine the real number of people, civilians and soldiers, Ukrainians and Russians, since the conflict started on February 24. And it will likely be years after the war ends before the exact humanitarian toll can be known, according to an expert in international humanitarian law (IHL) who asked to remain anonymous and contacted Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s regional director for Eastern Europe. by means of The HuffPost

Use numbers as a weapon

According to the latest report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 691 civilians, including about 50 children, have been killed in Ukraine and more than 1,140 injured (including 62 children). Ukraine, pointing out that its balance sheets are likely to be much lower than reality. “About 1,300” Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday. Ukraine claims that the Russian army has lost “about 12,000 men”. Moscow announced a single attack on March 2 (498 soldiers killed). The Pentagon has given an estimate of 2,000 to 4,000 Russian deaths in 14 days.

Figures that can only increase as the conflict progresses, and which sources say continue to diverge. This is to respond to the communications war raging on the ground parallel to the war. Because numbers are a weapon: for example, they can undermine the enemy’s morale if the balance of his losses is substantial and, conversely, boost the troops fighting against him. It is also a way for any country to reassure its civilian population, notes Amnesty International’s Marie Struther

Also, “for the Ukrainians, it is a form of restoration of the truth: since Russia denies being at war, they are there to confirm that there is indeed one with the deaths associated with it,” the paper explains. The cross Isabelle Davion, historian and lecturer at Sorbonne University. The fact that Russia, on the other hand, publishes a balance sheet is quite new and certainly due to the fact that coffins are returning to the bottom of the homeland.”

“This is also why many jurisdictions have been established to investigate what is happening in Ukraine and determine the real human losses,” explains another source, an expert in international humanitarian law. Such as in particular the International Criminal Court and the United Nations High Commission.

“Access to objective and reliable information is one of the first victims of conflict. In this information war we are witnessing, we have to be very careful about what we read, hear and see,” warns Marie Struthers.

The difficulty of investigating an armed conflict

As she points out, given the situation and the incessant shelling, it is normal that the Ukrainian authorities, for their part, have difficulties in carrying out their services to provide clear information on the number of victims. And even for the organizations and observers on the ground it remains very difficult to establish a real human toll.

The mission is to restore family ties, locate the missing, identify the bodies with sometimes just personal items and repatriate the remains.An expert in international humanitarian law at HuffPost

Indeed, to see, you must be able to move, but the conflict is still raging and the attacks prevent any movement. “The balance is getting heavier by the day and we cannot take stock until the armed conflict is over, emphasizes the expert on international humanitarian law. We cannot say how many people have fled, been displaced or missing.” Without stable humanitarian corridors, civilians cannot flee and aid cannot return to see and report.

And yet, how do you determine the death toll in a bombed-out building with hundreds of people? How to identify the victims in such mass graves? This is the arduous task of the courts established to investigate, of organizations and associations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International and their forensic doctors. “The mission is to restore family ties, locate missing persons, identify the bodies, sometimes containing only personal items, and repatriate the remains. And of course that takes a lot of time,” explains our conversation partner.

Ditto on the side of Amnesty, where Marie Struthers explains to us that teams specializing in photo and video authentication and military specialists are investigating to verify the information as closely as possible. This is also what United Nations teams are doing across the country.

Years before the true extent of the damage was known

Despite everything, “it will take months and months,” even years after the end of the conflict, to have an accurate picture of the damage and human toll in this war, Marie Struthers laments. On the one hand, the areas where the investigations will be conducted will literally be mined. Indeed, during the conflict, a certain number of dropped bombs will not have exploded on the ground, mines will have been laid and not deactivated and, above all, bombs will remain from the cluster bombs used by the Russian army.

The latter, banned by the Oslo Treaty – which Russia and Ukraine have not ratified – are large bombs filled with small bombs. In flight, they are spread over an area the size of two football fields. But about 25% of them will not explode on the ground and remain active, the DHI expert explains. “Securing Ukrainian soil, conducting investigations, identifying victims, reuniting families… this will take years,” she adds.

The International Criminal Court has already started centralizing its information and conducting its investigation into “possible war crimes” against Russia.

See also on The HuffPost: How Zelensky Uses History to Seek International Aid