At least one in every seven schools in eastern Ukraine was damaged or destroyed during the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Sky News can reveal.
In a new report, shared exclusively with Sky News, the Centre for Information Resilience has verified 381 separate incidents in which Ukrainian schools, universities, orphanages and nurseries were damaged or destroyed between 24 February 2022 and 24 February 2023.
During that time the analysis shows at least a dozen educational institutions were struck every single month.
An estimated 3.6 million Ukrainian children are likely to miss out on education as a result of the war, according to World Vision International.
The Ukrainian government said in October that 2,677 educational institutions had been damaged by the fighting, including 331 that were entirely destroyed.
In only a small portion of those incidents has the aftermath been recorded in images and videos shared on social media, allowing investigators at the Centre for Information Resilience to independently verify that the strikes took place.
One such incident was the bombing of Happy Time kindergarten in Kyiv. On 26 June last year, a cruise missile landed in the kindergarten’s playground, with a second missile striking a nearby block of flats.
Researchers at the Centre for Information Resilience were able to confirm the strike based on the images posted to social media.
They used satellite imagery to match the buildings seen in the background to the location of the kindergarten, and to identify the missile’s likely target – a nearby industrial complex, owned by a manufacturer of air-to-air and anti-tank missiles.
“Our team collects data from online sources,” explains Belén Carrasco Rodríguez, a senior investigator at the Centre for Information Resilience.
“Most of it is satellite imagery and user generated content. We store it on an internal dataset, we categorise it. We archive it, so that in case it gets deleted we still have the file in our internal dataset. And then our analysts use independently replicable techniques such as geolocation and chronolocation in order to see when, where and how the incidents happened.
“This way we build a dataset that we can share with domestic and international justice and accountability mechanisms in order to support their investigations into war crimes and human rights abuses.”
One in seven schools in eastern Ukraine has been struck
The largest share of verified strikes took place in the eastern region of Donetsk, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
There have been at least 207 strikes damaging educational institutions in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk), leaving one in every seven schools damaged or destroyed.
Much of the destruction in eastern Ukraine has been centred on the area surrounding Bakhmut, a city that has been under siege by Russian forces since August.
Ukrainian government data from 2018 shows the town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, had 12 schools before the war. Investigators at the Centre for Information Resilience were able to verify strikes hitting 10 of those schools, as well as two of the town’s nine nurseries and kindergartens.
The images below show the scale of indiscriminate destruction wrought by months of fighting in one of Soledar’s residential neighbourhoods, with a kindergarten highlighted in yellow.
Other towns along the front line have also experienced indiscriminate attacks in recent months, as Russia has sought to break through Ukraine’s defence line in Donetsk.
One of those towns is Vuhledar, which has been subject to intense shelling since late January 2023. The image below, captured by a drone and verified by the Centre for Information Resilience, shows how educational facilities have been caught up in the fighting.
Mariupol, on Ukraine’s southern coast, experienced some of the most intense conflict early on in the war, before being captured by Russia. At least 40 strikes hit the city’s educational institutions in March and April 2022.
Many strikes have strayed far from the front lines
In the case of Mariupol, Carrasco Rodríguez says the damage to schools is likely to be a product of indiscriminate shelling. In other cases, however, researchers believe the bombings have been more targeted.
“We have areas where our analysts have verified systematic, targeted shelling of schools,” she says.
“In Kharkiv, for example, our analysts saw an increase in damage to schools in July 2022, once the frontline had shifted away from Kharkiv city – schools were still being hit. And analysis on the area surrounding the damaged schools suggested that it was more systematic targeting rather than a by-product of indiscriminate shelling.”
Not a single month has gone by since the start of the war without one of Kharkiv’s schools, nurseries or universities being shelled or bombed. In several cases, the researchers found that no other buildings had been hit within three kilometres.
Three schools in the region have been hit twice, while Kharkiv University has been hit on three separate occasions. Since Russia’s withdrawal from the region as a whole in September, at least 16 further bombings have taken place.
Sky News compared the incidents recorded by the Centre for Information Resilience against the war’s shifting front lines, as documented by the Institute for the Study of War.
The chart below shows each incident, its date and its distance from the frontline. Those in the shaded area took place in Russian-held territory, while those above took place in areas controlled by Ukraine.
It shows just how far some strikes have strayed deep into Ukrainian-held territory – well behind the front lines.
It’s not simple to attribute responsibility for all these incidents, especially those occurring in the thick of fighting near front lines. But of those occurring more than 10 kilometres from the front lines, five out of every six (84%) took place in Ukrainian-held territories – suggesting Russia as a more likely culprit.
Educational institutions in Russian-held territories have suffered just one strike more than 50 kilometres from the front, while those in Ukrainian-held territories have been shelled 26 times.
That’s not because there are more schools on the Ukrainian-controlled side.
Analysis of the shifting front lines in eastern Ukraine shows that there were, on average, 890 schools in Russian-held territory on any given day (excluding those within 10 kilometres of the front line). That’s more than three times as many as there were on the Ukrainian side (249).
Yet nearly five times as many strikes hit schools in Ukrainian-held areas, compared to those on the Russian side of the front line.
Overall, schools more than 10 kilometres from the front line in Ukrainian-controlled areas were 17 times more likely to be struck than their counterparts in Russian-controlled areas. For kindergartens, the difference was 33-fold.
Bombings of Ukraine’s educational institutions have increased significantly in recent months, following a decline during the summer.
At least 50 institutions were hit in January, the highest since the war began, while February saw at least 30 incidents, with 16 schools and four nurseries and kindergartens damaged or destroyed.
The rise in strikes damaging educational facilities is part of a broader increase in damage to civilian infrastructure. The Centre for Information Resilience recorded 136 strikes that hit civilian buildings in January, the highest number for a single month since their records began in May 2022.
As well as 50 bombings affecting educational institutions, there were also 33 verified strikes that damaged healthcare facilities and 14 that hit cultural buildings such as churches and libraries.
The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.