A Human Rights Watch and SITU Research Investigation
As Russian forces intensified their offensive in eastern Ukraine in early April 2022, Alina Kovalenko called her mother, Tamara, 71, and begged her to flee their family home in Kramatorsk. Despite the pressing danger and calls by local authorities to evacuate, Tamara was reluctant to leave the city where she had lived for 40 years.
Finally, on April 7, Tamara relented. “It’s too late today, there’s already a long line [at the Kramatorsk train station],” she told her daughter. They agreed she would leave the next morning for western Ukraine, and from there perhaps to Poland, where Alina, 48, had been living since January.
Tamara packed her bag, planning to leave early to avoid the long lines for evacuation trains. Alina called her mother before 7 a.m. as Tamara made her way to the station, where hundreds of people were already gathering. The first train wouldn't arrive for a few hours, so Tamara waited. And so did Alina.
Anxious about the trip, Alina called her mother again a few hours later. This time there was no answer.
Suddenly, Alina’s phone flooded with messages. “I started receiving messages on social media networks, like Facebook, and I heard there was a missile.” Alina frantically scanned the news. Then she saw the pictures. “The first one I saw was a photo of my mother, lying on the ground. I was seeing the photos and I couldn’t believe it.”
On April 8, at 10:28 a.m., a ballistic missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead dispersed 50 small bombs, known as submunitions, over the train tracks and station in Kramatorsk, where Tamara and several hundred other people were anxiously waiting for evacuation trains to take them to relative safety away from the worst fighting. At least 58 people were killed – all of them to our knowledge civilians – and over 100 others were injured. After Ukrainian officials reported the attack, the Russian government that day denied responsibility, saying their forces did not have or deploy the ballistic missile used, and then blamed Ukrainian forces for the attack. The attack remains one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022.
Human Rights Watch researchers visited Kramatorsk from May 14 to 24, 2022 to investigate the attack and its aftermath. SITU Research, a visual investigations practice, and Human Rights Watch analyzed over 200 videos and photographs and conducted a spatial and temporal analysis of the attack. We also reviewed satellite imagery and inspected a former Russian military position near Kunie village in the Kharkivska region, a possible launch location for the attack.
The evidence strongly indicates that the missile that killed and injured civilians at Kramatorsk train station was launched from Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The attack was a violation of the laws of war and an apparent war crime.
What follows is the story of the attack and some of those forever affected by it.
An Evacuation Hub
Russian forces carried out an assault on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, during the initial weeks of the war – which failed. In late March and early April 2022, these forces retreated from Kyivska, Chernihivska, and Sumska regions north and east of the capital.1 The Russian offensive then intensified in the eastern part of Ukraine known as Donbas, made up largely of the Donetska and Luhanska regions. Russia-affiliated armed groups, at times with direct assistance from Russian armed forces, had seized control of parts of these regions in 2014, after which Kramatorsk became the temporary regional center for the Ukrainian government-controlled part of Donetska region.2
As Russian attacks on government-controlled areas increasingly struck homes, schools, and other civilian infrastructure throughout the region, families began to flee in droves.
The Kramatorsk train station became the main hub for evacuations, where people from across Donbas came by buses organized for evacuees or by private vehicles to board trains that would take them to relative safety in western Ukraine, with their pets and any belongings they could carry.3
Tens of thousands of civilians were evacuated from the Kramatorsk train station in the days prior to the April 8 attack.4 Local authorities and volunteers said thousands of people were evacuated by train each day prior to the attack. One train station worker who had access to official records told Human Rights Watch that on April 6 and 7 they evacuated 6,500 and 8,200 people, respectively. A volunteer working at the station said most people would arrive each day between 7 and 8 a.m.5 The head of the patrol police for Kramatorsk, Oleksandr Malysh, said that he had ordered the deployment of their tactical operations unit to help manage the large crowds.6
Local officials were encouraging civilians to evacuate as the threat posed by Russian forces grew.7 The Kramatorsk City Council publicly shared information about evacuations from Kramatorsk train station on its Telegram channel, including daily updates on the exact times of trains that civilians could use for evacuations.8 Photos and videos of the evacuations prior to April 8 were widely circulated on the social media accounts of the City of Kramatorsk and other social media accounts, and several news outlets reported on the situation in the days before the attack.
Messages posted to social media and Telegram accounts of local officials encouraged civilians to evacuate. The Kramatorsk City Council publicly shared information about evacuations from the Kramatorsk train station on its Telegram channel, including daily train schedules.
Human Rights Watch and SITU Research reviewed over 100 photos and videos from the days prior to the attack, posted on social media or shared privately, that show thousands of people crowded onto the train platforms, in the train station’s main building, and in the courtyard and parking lot to the west side of the main building where there are small shops. On April 5, a video captured by journalist Cristiano Tinazzi at the station shows crowds of civilians, including older people and children, with small bags and suitcases in long lines in front of the station and lined up on the platform, waiting to be evacuated.9 The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières posted a video that shows what we calculated to be well over 1,000 people crowded on the train platform on April 6.10
One hour later, the mayor announced that the evacuations would resume, and the schedule for the nine trains expected that day was posted on Telegram. 13 The first train was a small, regional train headed to Lozova, less than 100 kilometers west of Kramatorsk. It was due to depart at 11:50 a.m. and some passengers had already boarded the train at the time of the attack. A larger train with 16 cars was due to depart for Lviv at about 1 p.m.14
Despite the possibility of disruption and delays, April 8 began as previous days had. Men, women, children, older people, and those with limited mobility began arriving at the station before 8 a.m., along with their luggage and household pets. They were seeking to flee the barrage of Russian attacks and reach western Ukraine or continue on to another country.15 When they arrived, they joined a line that began at the front of the train station, at its main entrance that faced west, where volunteers helped divide them into three groups. Group 1 consisted of pregnant women and families with children up to 5 years old. This group was allowed to wait for their train in the northern waiting hall of the main building. Group 2 comprised families with children from 6 to 12 years old, as well as people with disabilities, and they waited in the south wing of the station. The rest of the evacuees formed Group 3, who largely waited on the platform or in the main hall of the station.
Many people chose to wait outside near the tracks, regardless of their group. Some sat on wooden benches near the platform. Others gathered outside a large green tent set up by local authorities that provided some warmth for those waiting outside. Volunteers handed out cups of tea and provided food, water, information about trains, and power outlets for evacuees to charge their phones.
Multiple witnesses, including the train station director, the head of the police, and volunteers working at the station, described large crowds on the morning of April 8. A Ukrainian journalist, Alexey Merkulov, who arrived at the station at about 10 a.m. and was present and filming at the time of the attack, took numerous videos of the platform, the interior of the train station, and the area outside the entrance facing west. Based on these videos, interviews with others at the station, and an analysis of the architectural layout of the train station and its surrounding area, SITU Research and Human Rights Watch calculated that there were over 500 people in and around the station at the time of the attack.
On April 8 at 10:28 a.m., journalist Merkulov’s video footage shows a family speaking to a volunteer outside the Kramatorsk train station’s main building on the southern end near an external gate, when a loud explosion causes the windows of the station to shudder, dogs to run, and people to flinch.
Anton, a volunteer, was standing closer to the center of the train station, on the side of the platform. He said that he was taking a group of people from the main building onto the platform when he heard and felt a powerful explosion. He said:
Some people were thrown to the ground by the blast wave. Some had blast wave trauma, like bleeding from their noses. People started to panic. I decided I should calm them down since the explosions had already happened. But then the submunitions started to fall. People were running into the building to hide inside. … I was knocked over. … After [the explosions stopped], I climbed out from under the pile of people, and when I got to my feet, there were wounded people all around.16
Anton said that he and others at the station were caught completely off guard by the attack: “There was no warning. No siren.”
Yuliia Davliatchyna, who is in her 50s, was waiting on the train platform to the north of the station with four family members – her daughter, her husband, and his brother and mother – when the submunitions started raining down. She said:
When the first explosions happened, we didn't understand what it was. We had heard explosions many times before, but these were so close and therefore unusual. When people started to scream, I understood, it was something terrible.
When we understood that [the blast] happened right next to us, we fell to the ground. But my mother-in-law [age 72] didn't react fast enough and kept sitting. One of her legs was torn away, the other one was broken, and then she died.
My husband shielded our daughter with his body. [After doing so] he was badly injured. … His right shoulder bone was cut in half by a piece of metal. That piece [of metal] was later extracted. It looks like a small square.
A man, maybe a worker in an orange suit, was killed. We talked to him right before this, and then he was dead.17
Vladyslav Kopychko, 27, was also on the platform on the northern side of the station while his mother, his 3-year-old half-brother Liovka, and his stepmother were inside the station’s main building. They were waiting for a train that they were told would arrive at noon. He said:
After the first explosion, I turned around, but then I heard nothing. I started to listen attentively, and I heard a whistling sound as something approached me. I was sitting on the bench with my back to the town and my face to the train tracks – and the sound I heard was coming from behind. I turned my head to the right, and I heard that whistle with my right ear.
I jumped under the bench and lay on my side. If I hadn't heard the sound, I wouldn't have gone to hide and could have been killed. While under the bench, I heard one more explosion and then 10 more explosions. I screamed to avoid barotrauma18 and felt that something penetrated my body.
Then I raised my head and saw a dead man. I saw his brain, torn leg – this person lying on me with his face towards me. His intestines had fallen out on me. I understood that he was not alive. I then saw that I was bleeding and pierced with metal on my back, my pelvis, and my buttocks.
Vladyslav’s mother, Olena Khalimonova, 49, said that she and the others she was with inside the station fell to the floor after the first explosion and hid the toddler under the bench. None of them were physically injured. Khalimonova then ran outside to look for her son. She used belts as improvised tourniquets to stop the bleeding from his legs, which she said she had learned to do on the internet.
Andrii Kovaliov, 46, was waiting on the platform when the explosions started. He said he watched a man run by him with a child in his arms, blood pouring from the child‘s body, as the man screamed, “Why not me? The legs are torn off!”19
People who had already boarded the regional train to Lozova were not spared.20 Hanna Breslavets, 46, and her two children – Liliia, 12, and Artem, 13 – had boarded that train to flee Kramatorsk as quickly as possible. Shortly after they got on the train, she said, the bombs started falling. Her son, Artem, was struck with a piece of metal that entered his thigh and stopped. Breslavets realized later that she was also cut by a glass shard in her forehead.21
In the parking lot in front of the station, a man who requested anonymity said he was waiting by his car while his wife, children, and grandchildren waited inside the station. When the explosions started, he yelled to a man standing nearby to get down, but the man was hit and fell to the ground. Another one of the submunitions detonated on the car next to his, and the man waiting by his car lost consciousness. He said he quickly came to and saw how a puddle of gasoline from the car next to his had caught fire. The flames spread to the man who had been hit next to him. He said he then gathered himself and stumbled to safety inside the train station to find his family. He later learned that three vehicles in the parking lot had caught fire, burning the body of the man killed next to his car.22
Chaos and Carnage
At 11:17 a.m., the head of the Ukrainian government’s Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on his Telegram channel that “more than 30 people died and more than 100 were injured as a result of the rocket attack on the Kramatorsk railway station,” which he called a “targeted attack on the passenger infrastructure of the railway and the residents of the city of Kramatorsk.”
Just after the attack, survivors around the train station and on the platform crowded into the station’s main building for safety, while others fled the area. In a video recorded by Merkulov at 10:33 a.m., people can be seen running to the west from the station towards residential and commercial areas.
Oleksander Vovk, 45, who was at his home across the street from the station, said he led people into his basement so that they could take cover before he ran to the station to see if he could help. When he got there, he saw injured and dead people all around. “I saw a child whose head was burst open,” he said. He then rushed to help another child with a badly injured leg. He took as many people as he could to the hospital, calling his wife, a nurse, and telling her that there were injured people everywhere.23
Volunteers and other civilians and volunteers on the scene frantically tried to treat the wounded as they waited for first responders to arrive.
Vitalii Oshmukha, a volunteer at the train station, described a horrific scene as he and others attempted to provide first aid at the station with whatever material they could find, including diapers to dress wounds, after sifting through the dead. Oshmukha did not have any bandages with him, “but there were lots of diapers.” So he said he used the diapers to treat one woman’s wounds. He also used his waist belt as a makeshift tourniquet when he saw a man on the platform bleeding profusely from the leg.
Some severely injured people quickly died, Oshmukha said. Most of the injured he saw had wounds in their lower limbs and abdomens. “They were bleeding,” he said. “If we had more means to stop bleeding, fewer people would have died.”
Oshmukha said that as he was scrambling to help people, he saw a woman sitting upright near the green tent on the south end of the station. But when he came back awhile later, she was already dead. The green tent had collapsed from the blast, and when he cut open the fabric he found more bodies.
Aliona Kobets, 45, was in the green tent with nine of her family members at the time of the attack, and she described the detonation of submunitions nearby. Her family members and a 5-month-old baby from another family were the only ones who survived. “The rest were corpses. … We ran and dead bodies were before us,” she said. “Someone was decapitated. Another had no leg.”24
Kobets also described the injuries that six of her family members suffered:
Iryna, 8, had a laceration in her right thigh. She was still hospitalized in late May.
Milana, 9, had metal fragments in her right arm and hand; one of the fragments near her pinky finger was taken out; the smaller metal pieces were left inside.
Oleksandra, 12, had a metal fragment in her lower left leg, which was later removed.
Hanna, 15, had a metal fragment near her waist. Doctors in Dnipro said it was not safe to take it out. In Lviv, doctors said the fragment had moved eight centimeters down. In late May, the family was still looking for a specialist to remove the fragment. Hanna’s right heel was also injured and for a time caused her to limp.
Heorhii, 18, was wounded in the elbow. Two metal fragments were eventually removed.
Halyna, 44, had a dislocated cervical vertebrae from the blast wave, which damaged nerves.
Emergency services, including military medical units, arrived at the train station minutes after the attack. One ambulance driver attached to a military unit stationed nearby said he was told to help collect the bodies. “But it wasn’t only the bodies I had to collect,” he said. As he rushed around the platform, helping where he could, he also collected body parts of the dead and injured and gathered them off to the side. “I heard a lot of cries,” he recalled. “People were crying all around. Very, very painful cries. I heard the crying of people who had 20 to 40 seconds left to live. I heard the last cries before death. I saw limbs, children’s limbs on the ground. I saw a head rolling on the ground.”
The commander of the police, Oleksandr Malysh, arrived after hearing frantic radio calls for help from his officers who were already on scene. He found a man carrying a young girl who “didn't have half her skull,” he said. “I took the girl and put her into a patrol car and drove her to the hospital… at high speed with the lights on. I brought her to City Hospital No. 1. From the looks of the nurses, this was the first case they'd seen.”25
Civilians with vehicles and emergency workers also rushed the severely injured people to the nearby hospitals, City Hospitals No. 1 and No. 3. Within a short time, the hospitals were packed with people struggling to hang onto life, as doctors scrambled to stop severe bleeding and to save nearly severed limbs. One doctor at Hospital No. 3 said that about 50 medical staff were on site, but they needed to call in reinforcements from hospitals in every nearby city.26
Viktor Kryklii, the acting head doctor at City Hospital No. 1, described their efforts that day:
Between 10:40 a.m. and 3 p.m., we treated 56 people, and later 7 more people, which makes 63 in total. There were 42 females and 21 males. Eight of them later died, including a 12-year-old girl. We helped 11 children. The wounds were predominantly from the traumatic amputation of limbs. Some of the wounded suffered heavy trauma. We tried to save a person in the corridor who was clinically dead, with a head injury in the back of the skull and another in the left part of the chest. But the resuscitation attempts didn't help, and the person died. One woman had her jaw torn off.27
Valentina Chubatenko, medical director of Hospital No. 3, said they treated 60 patients in total: 26 men, 25 women, and 9 children. About 50 patients had more serious injuries that needed to be treated immediately, including broken bones, amputations, bleeding, and trauma shock. Others had minor injuries such as scrapes and bruises.28
Vitaliy Kyrylenko, a surgeon and acting head of the trauma department at Hospital No. 3, said he treated patients from about 20 minutes after the attack until around 1 a.m. the next morning. The injuries ranged from open fractures caused by the explosion, partial trauma of limbs and amputations, head trauma, and trauma from explosions, including burned skin. “There were [metal] fragments in people’s bodies,” he said. “When we could, we removed them, but some of them we could not.”29
Andrii Petrychenko, head of Kramatorsk’s health department, said despite the efforts of the doctors, 16 patients died after surgery.30
Many of the cases were so severe that the local hospitals could only hope to stabilize the victims. Doctors and emergency workers quickly organized ambulances to take the most urgent cases to hospitals in Pavlohrad and Dnipro, west of Kramatorsk. Kryklii, the acting head doctor at Hospital No. 1, said that 20 ambulances came from Dnipro the night of the attack and took the most severely injured, including the amputees and children.
In Dnipro, Human Rights Watch spoke with six doctors who treated patients from Kramatorsk at the Dnipropetrovsk region children’s hospital. They said that they treated 16 children, 10 girls and 6 boys, as well as 5 adults ages from 18 to 44. The first 5 children and 2 adults arrived at the hospital at around 3 to 4 p.m. on the day of the attack. Some of the children were missing limbs. The next morning, at around 6:30 a.m., 11 more children and 3 adults arrived. The hospital’s director said that they had 12 intensive care unit beds but needed to add more.31
Human Rights Watch reviewed 28 photos of injuries that patients treated in Dnipro had suffered, showing limbs that had been amputated, broken bones, and other wounds.
The hospital gave Human Rights Watch the ages of each of the 21 patients, along with a description of the injuries they had suffered:
Age 4 Open fracture of lower third of the left femur with displacement of fragments
Age 2 Injury of anterior abdominal wall
Age 26 Fragment wound in the soft tissue of lumbar-iliac region
Age 17 Open wound in the soft tissue in the lower-middle third of the left thigh
Age 11 Traumatic brain injury. Open wound of right parietal region
Age 13 Open wound in the upper third of the right thigh. Foreign object in the upper third of the right thigh
Age 44 Open wound in the forehead
Age 10 Traumatic amputation of the lower third of the right shin. Traumatic amputation of the lower left leg at the level of the ankle joint. SPO: Amputation of left shin. Resection of right foot. Gunshot fragmentation wounds in the soft lower extremities. Phantom pain. Hypovolemic shock of the second stage
Age 17 Traumatic amputation of left upper limb
Age 7 Open wound in soft tissue of right lower limb
Age 15 Open wound in soft tissue of lumbar area
Age 9 Open wound in soft tissue of upper limb
Age 9 Open wound of the soft tissues of the left thigh and left shoulder
Age 9 Open wound in thigh
Age 37 Open wound in thigh. Foreign object in thigh
Age 15 Open wound in soft tissue of lower limb. Fragmentation wound
Age 18 Open wound in soft tissue of left elbow
Age 12 Open wound in soft tissue of right hand
Age 12 Multiple fractures in both lower legs
Age 7 Open fragment wound in the anterior abdominal wall with foreign object
Age 43 Fragment wound in the right thigh. Open wound
The weapon used in the attack on the Kramatorsk train station – a 9M79K-1 ballistic missile, or Tochka-U – can be launched up to 120 kilometers away from the intended target. It is designed to cause maximum destructive effect. In Kramatorsk, the missile’s rocket motor landed about 50 meters to the southwest of the station’s main entrance. On the side, the phrase “Payback for the children” was written in Russian (“За детей,” “Za detei”) with silver paint. This appeared to be a message of revenge, drawing from the repeated Russian government claim that Ukrainian shelling was wounding and killing Russian children in Donbas since Russia-backed forces took control of parts of Donbas in 2014.32
The Tochka-U variant used in the attack is a type of cluster munition. Cluster munitions are designed to open in the air and scatter dozens, even hundreds, of submunitions over wide areas. When these weapons are used, some of the submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that can act like landmines for years or even decades.
This variant of the Tochka-U carries 50 submunitions.
As the missile approached the train station on April 8 – but was still over 2,000 meters above ground – its warhead (called 9N123K) dispersed 50 9N24 fragmentation submunitions. Each of these is lethal to people in the open without protection. They are designed to injure and kill people or to destroy lightly protected equipment in the intended impact area.
A 9N24 submunition weighs 7.4 kilograms and carries 1.45 kilograms of explosive, around the same amount as a medium-sized mortar round. The submunitions are fitted with a four-arm fin assembly with white ribbons that deploy when the submunition is ejected from the warhead.
The ribbons stabilize and slow the submunition as it falls, increasing the chances it will function as designed. Each 9N24 submunition has a fuze that’s designed to detonate when it strikes a hard surface at an angle between 25 and 90 degrees, or it is designed to self-destruct within 32 to 60 seconds after being released from the missile warhead.33
The main body of each submunition has 18 pre-formed, partially pre-fragmented metal rings that, upon detonation, produce a total of approximately 316 near-uniform metal fragments averaging a weight of 7 grams each that spread at high-velocity in all directions. This means that the 50 submunitions dispersed in a single attack by a ballistic missile equipped with a 9N123K warhead can produce 15,800 of these pre-formed metal fragments – all lethal projectiles, as well as fragments of other metal parts produced by the detonation.
These are the metal fragments that ended up in the bodies of the men, women, and children waiting at the train station – tearing off limbs and causing fatal wounds.
A video recorded by journalist Merkulov at 10:33 a.m. on April 8 shows the missile’s guidance and propulsion section on fire, about 50 meters to the south and west of the train station’s main entrance.34
No missile is visible in a video of the same area recorded by Merkulov just minutes earlier, at 10:22 a.m. Human Rights Watch reviewed a total of 21 photos and videos showing the propulsion and guidance section of the missile soon after it struck, which allowed the weapon to be identified. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the site on May 14 and observed disturbed soil in the grass where the photos and videos depicted the munition remnants.
Between May 14 and 19, Human Rights Watch also identified 32 distinct impact sites where 9N24 submunitions had hit and detonated, including on the ground surrounding the train station, on the roof of the train station’s main building, on the train platforms, on and outside of nearby shops, and in the parking lot to the east of the station’s main entrance. Human Rights Watch analyzed the impact spatter patterns, remnants, and patterns of fragmentation, all of which were consistent with those of an 9N24 submunition.
The 32 separate submunition impact points that Human Rights Watch identified were located across an area of approximately 55,000 square meters, around the size of 10 football fields. While the maximum lethal range of each submunition is unknown, researchers found fragments from submunitions embedded in steel tens of meters from known impact sites. This demonstrates the devastating impact across a wide area that one single Tochka-U missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead can produce.
Human Rights Watch reviewed two videos and a photograph posted to Telegram on April 8 showing what appears to be the launch of two missiles and twin smoke trails that are consistent with surface-launched missiles. Captions on two of the videos claim they were captured in Shakhtarsk in Donetsk region, about 100 kilometers southeast of Kramatorsk, and some commentators hypothesized that they may have shown the launch of the attack on the Kramatorsk train station. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of these materials, however, proved inconclusive as to the location and date of the videos.35
“ZA DETEI” / “За детей”
“Payback for the children of Donbas” is a popular slogan in Russia and Russian-occupied territories, used as a rallying cry for Russian and Russia-backed armed groups in the Donbas after they seized control of parts of the region since 2014. It has also been used by various groups and individuals since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Pro-Russia social media accounts, including on Telegram and TikTok, have repeatedly posted this slogan alongside images of Russian forces apparently firing artillery and other munitions in Ukraine.36 Russian media outlets have also published photos of Russia-affiliated troops writing this slogan on munitions since February 24, 2022. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, pro-Russian Telegram channels with large numbers of followers, Rybar and Swodki, published posts calling on Russian and Russia-backed units to write the slogan on their armored vehicles to distinguish them from Ukrainian vehicles.37 Russian forces and forces from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic,” areas of the Donetska and Luhanska regions currently occupied by Russia, also have the slogan on artillery projectiles and rockets.38 In July 2022, the slogan appeared on billboards in Moscow as part of a pro-war publicity campaign.39 The Russian Defense Ministry has also used the phrase in at least two of its social media posts on Instagram and Twitter.40
A picture posted by the Russian Ministry of Defence on Instagram with the letter “Z” and reading “Payback for the children of Donbas!” on March 5, 2022. @mil_ru on Instagram
A billboard showing Z letters - a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine and reading "For Russia! Payback for the Children of Donbas!" in front of the lower house of Russia's Parliament in central Moscow on July 19, 2022. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)
At 12:26 p.m. on April 8, the Russian Defense Ministry denied that Russian forces had attacked the Kramatorsk train station, saying the allegation was a “provocation and untrue,” adding that they had not planned or conducted any "firing missions" in Kramatorsk that day. The ministry then falsely stated that only Ukrainian forces use the Tochka-U.41
Later that day, without presenting any evidence, the Defense Ministry accused Ukrainian forces of carrying out the attack on the train station in order to disrupt evacuations and to use the civilians as “human shields.”42 This unsubstantiated claim directly contrasts with Ukrainian authorities' extensive efforts to facilitate and encourage civilians to evacuate, as described above. Parties to the conflict have an obligation under international humanitarian law, the laws of war, to facilitate evacuations of civilians from areas of active fighting.
On April 20, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, repeated the unsubstantiated claim, stating that the attack on Kramatorsk was carried out by Ukrainian forces after “people were asked to come to the railway station.”43 Lavrov appears to suggest that – although people had been driving and taking buses to the Kramatorsk train station by the tens of thousands over the previous week, encouraged by local authorities to flee the Russian offensive – somehow the massive arrival of civilians at the station on the morning of April 8 was different, or part of a Ukrainian plan to intentionally kill Ukrainian people.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence to support these Russian claims. On the contrary, all evidence points to Russian forces having fired the Tochka-U missile with cluster munitions on the Kramatorsk train station.
On February 3, Human Rights Watch submitted questions to the Russian Defense Ministry about their use of Tochka missiles in Ukraine as well as evidence to support their claim of Ukrainian responsibility for the attack. We have not received a response at time of writing.
Russian Force’s Tochka Missile Use in Ukraine
Since it entered service in 1989, the Tochka missile system has featured prominently in the Russian, and previously the Soviet Union’s, military arsenal. The system has also been and is currently in use by Ukrainian forces.44 The Russian military has long-planned to replace the aging system and in 2019 announced that it had completed rearming all missile brigades that previously used Tochka missiles with the 9K720 Iskander ballistic missile system.45 Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian officials have stated on multiple occasions, including in letters to the UN Security Council on March 15 and the General Assembly on April 8, that their military is not using Tochka missiles.46
Letter from Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations, to the UN Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council stating that Russia does not use Tochka-U missiles.
Despite this, various sources have covered Russia’s use of the missile system since February 24, 2022. In July 2022, a former Russian military officer and pro-government commentator criticized the Russian military for failing to cover up Tochka-U launchers that Ukrainian forces had reportedly destroyed near Luhansk.47 In January 2022, the reference publication Jane’s Strategic Weapons Yearbook reported that both the Russian and Ukrainian military forces have the Tochka missile system in their stocks.48 Various independent investigators have also documented the presence of Russia’s Tochka-U ballistic missiles in and near Ukraine by reviewing photos and videos posted to social media.49
Human Rights Watch has also identified several locations where Russian forces have apparently deployed Tochka missile systems in Ukraine since February 24, 2022.
In the village of Kunie, 22 kilometers north of Izium in the Kharkivska region, Human Rights Watch found extensive evidence that Tochka missiles were present near a facility that Russian forces were using around the time of the April 8 attack. The Kramatorsk train station lies well within the 120-kilometer range of the Tochka-U missile. Russian forces occupied this region for about six months, from early March to early September.
Human Rights Watch analyzed very high-resolution satellite imagery captured on April 15, 2022 that shows several large rectangular containers on a concrete slab outside the facility being used by Russian forces near Kunie. The shape, size, and color of the containers are consistent with 9Ya234 transport containers for Tochka missiles. At least 12 of these transport containers are also visible in a satellite image collected on September 6. The same containers are also visible at the site in two videos that were uploaded to the official Facebook page of the Command of the Airborne Assault Troops of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on June 29 and June 30.50 The videos show what the Ukrainian armed forces claim to be an attack on the site, where numerous military vehicles were parked. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of satellite imagery confirmed that this attack happened between June 28 at 11:04 a.m., and June 29 at 11:07 a.m.
The apparent Tochka missile containers are not visible at this site on satellite imagery recorded on April 11, the closest date to April 8 for which satellite imagery of this location is available. However, this does not rule out the possibility that the Tochka missiles were launched from this area or that the missiles had been stored within the compound. It is unlikely that these valuable munitions would be stored outside without cover or protection. Residents of the village also described to Human Rights Watch significant Russian military activity in and around the village in early April, including the firing of munitions.
Human Rights Watch visited the site in Kunie on January 10 and 11, 2023, about four months after Ukrainian forces had retaken control of the region. Researchers interviewed 16 people who live in the area and observed remnants on the concrete slabs outside the facility that were consistent with a Tochka 9Ya234 missile container. The intact containers were no longer at the site. One resident and a Ukrainian official told Human Rights Watch that the Ukrainian government had inspected the site and moved the containers to a government facility in the region.51 On September 6, 2022, containers are still visible on satellite imagery at the site. They are no longer visible in imagery recorded on January 7, 2023. On October 14, 2022, Carl Court, a photographer for Getty Images, photographed at least seven 9Ya234 missile containers on the same concrete slab at the Kunie site visited by Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch saw at least 11 containers of the same dimensions and color in storage at a Ukrainian government facility 20 kilometers away in Izium.
Human Rights Watch also observed the rocket motor section of a Tochka missile and multiple unexploded 9N24 submunitions in Kunie village, which two residents said they personally had moved a month earlier from where they had struck about a kilometer away. Based on an analysis of the remnants, it appears that the Tochka missile with the cluster munitions warhead did not function properly. Thermal damage on portions of the weapon indicate damage by fire that did not result from the normal functioning of the missile. The same two residents said that they saw five fire extinguishers at the site where they found the remnants.52 Human Rights Watch was unable to verify from where this missile had been fired.
A dozen local residents told Human Rights Watch that Russian forces were in the Kunie area from the first days of the invasion in late February. By early March, they were occupying the site where the container remnants were found. Residents also described continuous Russian military activity in the area, including the movement and repair of vehicles, as well as the firing of munitions from inside and around the village. One resident said that launches from the area became more intense in April.53 Two other residents said that the Russians fired from the fields around the area and then returned to the area of the facility.54 “They didn't fire anything from here, they were living here but firing from the fields around,” one man who requested anonymity said.55
Three residents said that they saw Russian vehicles consistent with those associated with the Tochka missile system, including, in some cases, those used to launch and load the missile, as well as the long, green rectangular containers.56 One man who used to work at the facility where Human Rights Watch found the container remnants said that he could see the Russian forces there from the nearby school. “They didn’t let people come here,” he said. “They were loading and reloading Tochka-U’s here. …They were reloading [at the facility], and then would drive into the fields and forests nearby and fire from there. I heard numerous launches where they would drive out from here, and then fire, then drive back.”57
Taken together, this evidence strongly indicates that Russian forces had Tochka launch vehicles, its associated missile transport equipment, and Tochka missiles in the area around Kunie village around the time of the attack in Kramatorsk, and that Russian forces regularly launched attacks from positions around Kunie during this period.
In addition, Human Rights Watch verified two videos recorded in Gomel region, Belarus, and posted to social media on March 30, 2022, that further indicate Russian forces' possession of the Tochka missile system. One of the videos shows six 9P129-1M Tochka launch vehicles. In the other video, nine boxes consistent with the Tochka missile transport container are visible in the back of five Kamaz transport vehicles traveling in the same convoy.58 Human Rights Watch was not able to independently determine when these videos were recorded. In both videos, vehicles have a "V" symbol painted on them – one of the symbols that the Russian military has used to designate equipment for operations in Ukraine since February 24, 2022. In July, open-source researchers, in videos confirmed by Human Rights Watch, identified two of the same 9P129-1M vehicles in Ukraine due to their specific markings and camouflage patterns. One was seen in Pryazovske, Zaporizka region, and the other in the Luhanska region.59
The armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine is governed by international humanitarian law, known as the laws of war, which can be found in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I), and customary international law. The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, attacks that cannot discriminate between combatants and civilians, and attacks that could be expected to cause disproportionate civilian harm compared to any concrete military gain.
Russia’s attack on the crowded Kramatorsk train station was unlawfully indiscriminate. Railroad tracks and train stations are used by armed forces for military purposes and therefore can be lawful military targets. However, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the Kramatorsk station was at the time of the attack being used for military purposes or that there were Ukrainian forces in the area. Airstrikes or artillery attacks on objects where there is no military objective are indiscriminate.
Human Rights Watch reviewed 26 videos and photos taken just before and during the attack and saw no one wearing military uniforms and no military vehicles or military equipment at the station or in the area west of the tracks. One volunteer worker who spent several weeks at the station prior to the attack said that each day he saw at most 20 military personnel in total who would come to drop off their family members for evacuation.60 He and other station workers said that in the days before the attack, some members of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces were helping the station authorities and police coordinate the thousands of people who would arrive to evacuate each day.61
Human Rights Watch found some evidence of possible minimal military use of the station and nearby rail network at the time of the attack. Two people said that on the morning of April 8 they observed a train at the station carrying scrap metal, what one said appeared to be “what was left from military machinery.”62 The train was at the station at 8 a.m. and left before the attack, heading north.63 The other man said that prior to 10 a.m. he observed a train, about 10 platform cars in length, carrying “broken and damaged military machinery,” including vehicles without wheels or tracks that appeared to be scrap.64 Videos filmed by Alexy Merkulov and reviewed by Human Rights Watch that were recorded just after 10 a.m. did not show this train, but showed a train with shipping containers.65 Another cargo train can be seen stationary in the distance but without any visible scrap metal or damaged military machinery.
Even if this use of the station and railroad facilities at Kramatorsk was for military purposes, the April 8 attack would have been unlawfully disproportionate. Attacking forces are obligated to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. Bombing a train station in the morning when it was crowded with civilian passengers, families, and station workers, rather than late at night when it would have been far less crowded, demonstrates a disregard for civilian life. Killing dozens of civilians at a train station to carry out an attack on damaged military materiel would likely be a disproportionate loss of civilian life and property compared to any anticipated military gain.
Finally, the attack on Kramatorsk station was indiscriminate because of the weapon used. Although neither Russia nor Ukraine are parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans these weapons, their use is widely considered to be a violation of international humanitarian law because they cannot discriminate between combatants and civilians, and because of the long-lasting danger to civilians from unexploded submunitions.66
Serious violations of the laws of war committed by individuals with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime. Military commanders and civilian officials may be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
Directing an attack against civilians or civilian objects or launching an attack knowing that the incidental loss of civilian life is clearly excessive compared to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is a grave breach of Protocol I67 and a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.68 An indiscriminate attack, including the use of cluster munitions in populated areas, is a war crime as a matter of customary international humanitarian law.69
In the days prior to the cluster munition strike, local officials made repeated public announcements about the evacuation of civilians from the Kramatorsk train station. The use of aerial surveillance would also have uncovered the crowds of people at the station. Russian commanders responsible for the attack and the military unit involved should have known that a large number of civilians would likely be at the station at the time of the attack on April 8.
During visits to the train station and the surrounding area between May 14 and 24, Human Rights Watch observed a Ukrainian military base about 350 meters southeast of the station and another military base about one kilometer north of the station. It is unclear whether these military positions were present on April 8. The Russian government, which has denied carrying out any attacks in Kramatorsk on April 8, did not claim to be attacking these bases and accidentally striking the train station.
The unlawful nature of the Kramatorsk attack, the evidence of a large civilian presence without a significant military objective, and the use of an inherently indiscriminate weapon indicate that the Russian military commanders and personnel who ordered and carried out the attack were committing a war crime.
Mourning the Dead, Awaiting Justice
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said on April 14, 2022 that 59 people were killed in the attack on the Kramatorsk train station, including 7 children.70 Authorities later revised this figure to 61 people killed.71 Based on interviews with hospital officials, morgue workers, relatives and friends of the victims, and officials from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office and security services, Human Rights Watch believes that at least 58 civilians were killed. Ukrainian officials investigating the attack told Human Rights Watch that the real number of victims may be higher, given the challenges in identifying partial remains. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, all of those killed were civilians. Researchers visited the burial sites of four victims of the attack.
Human Rights Watch also verified and analyzed 99 photographs and videos recorded just after the attack and matched the locations of the dead and wounded in these images with five locations where submunition impact sites and fragmentation spatter were found.72
Most of the bodies of the dead were taken to the city’s main morgue at Hospital No. 3. Two morgue employees told Human Rights Watch that they initially received 40 bodies, which were subsequently taken by a military refrigerator truck to Dnipro. The morgue then received 8 bodies between 10 and 15 days after the attack from Dnipro.73 They were all buried in cemeteries in Kramatorsk. Another 10 bodies were reportedly taken to the cities and towns from which the people came for burial.
A soldier who works as an ambulance driver said that he helped transport bodies to the morgue at Hospital No. 3 after the attack, and that he personally saw 18 bodies at the morgue that had been returned from Dnipro.74 One of the bodies was that of a young woman whose parents he met when he carried her body into the morgue. The soldier said the parents were distraught and told him how their one wish was for their daughter to be buried in a wedding dress, a local custom for unmarried young women. The young woman’s mother asked him to call a wedding dress shop to order the dress. He did, and the shopkeeper apparently replied, “Are you kidding me? We're in the middle of a war.” But when he explained the situation, the shopkeeper understood, and the family was able to get a dress.75
A worker at the morgue described the difficulties she faced trying to prepare the young woman’s body for burial: “[She] had no limbs, and cuts over her stomach. She was in three pieces and in two body bags… I powdered her cheeks and put the dress on top of her. She was in three pieces, so it was impossible to put the dress on her normally.”76
Alina Kovalenko’s mother, Tamara, was also among the bodies taken to the morgue at Hospital No. 3. Alina described her mother as a retired electrical engineer who won awards for her excellent work and lived most of her life in Kramatorsk. Alina said that from the spring to the fall, her mother would spend much of her time in the garden: “She loved planting flowers. She had so many roses of so many different colors.”
Like many of the family members of those killed in the April 8 attack, Alina couldn't come home to bury her mother. Instead, she asked a friend to help. On April 19, Tamara was buried next to Alina’s father. Her grave, along with the thousands of other new graves dug in cemeteries across Ukraine since this war started, is distinguished by the recently dug earth and a freshly painted sign.
The text has been corrected to note that the train due to depart from Kramatorsk for Lviv on April 8 at 1 p.m. was scheduled to have 16 cars and not 14.
Research at Human Rights Watch by: Richard Weir, Alexx Perepölov, Belkis Wille, Kseniya Kvitka, Yuri Kulynyak, Ida Sawyer, Robin Taylor, Gabriela Ivens, Devon Lum, Léo Martine, Carolina Jordá Álvarez, Martyna Marciniak, Sam Dubberley, Mark Hiznay
Research at SITU Research by: Bora Erden, Jarrett Ley, Helmuth Rosales, Brad Samuels, Candice Strongwater
Legal analysis by: James Ross
Reviewed by: Fred Abrahams, Rachel Denber, Yulia Gorbunova
Editorial and production coordination by: Nia Knighton and Emma Wilbur
Web design by: Grace Choi and John Emerson
Video production by: Taurai Maduna
Architectural model of Kramatorsk Train Station courtesy of Architecture bureau VALENTIROV&PARTNERS / http://valentirov.com/en/
2 The Russian government denies any involvement by Russian forces in these regions before February 24, 2022.
3 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with rail station worker, May 18, 2022; Human Rights Watch interview with Andrii Kovaliov, Kyiv, May 31, 2022.
4 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with rail station worker, May 18, 2022; Human Rights Watch interview with Vitalii Osmukha, Dnipro, April 29, 2022; Human Rights Watch interview with Tetiana Tiurina, Kramatorsk, May 18, 2022.
5 Human Rights Watch interview with Anton Maliuskyi, Kramatorsk, May 24, 2022. The train station worker said that from February 26 to April 8, 110,620 people left the city through the Kramatorsk train station. Another city official said that, in the days leading up to the attack, 4,000 to 5,000 people on average were being evacuated every day. A volunteer who had been working at the train station for about a month at the time of the attack said that the week of the attack between 2,000 to 6,000 people were evacuated every day.
6 Human Rights Watch interview with Oleksandr Malysh, Kramatorsk, May 14, 2022.
11 On April 8 at 10:13 a.m., the Russian Defence Ministry stated: “High-precision air-based missiles in Donetsk Region have destroyed weapons and military equipment of the Ukrainian military reserves arriving in Donbass at Pokrovsk, Slavyansk and Barvinkove railway stations.” See Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, April 8, 2022, post to Telegram channel, https://t.me/mod_russia_en/754 (accessed August 9, 2022). According to the governor of Luhansk, the strike hit the train tracks at the overpass near Barvinkove station. See Luhanska OVA/Sergiy Gayday, April 7, 2022, post to Telegram channel, https://t.me/luhanskaVTSA/1328 (accessed August 9, 2022); Ukrzaliznytsia, April 7, 2022, post to Telegram channel, https://t.me/UkrzalInfo/1919 (accessed August 9, 2022); “Evacuation from Donetsk region is blocked: Russian Federation struck railway in Barvinkove from aircraft” (“Евакуація з Донеччини заблокована: РФ вдарила з авіації по залізниці у Барвінковому”), Suspil’ne, April 7, 2022, https://suspilne.media/226314-evakuacia-z-donbasu-zablokovana-rf-vdarila-z-aviacii-po-zaliznici-u-barvinkovomu/ (accessed August 9, 2022).
14 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with rail station worker, May 18, 2022; Kramatorsk City Council, April 8, 2022, post to Telegram channel, https://t.me/kramatorsk_rada/1489 (accessed September 1, 2022). A volunteer who worked at Kramatorsk station told Human Rights Watch that for many days leading up to the April 8 attack, the train station workers only had a vague idea of train schedules and had to wait for phone calls from Sloviansk confirming when trains departed toward Kramatorsk. He also said that trains' directions and stops, in addition to schedules, were subject to change based on the security and warfare situations in surrounding regions. On April 8, the first announced evacuation train was to Lviv. No evacuation trains had departed at the moment of the attack. A smaller regional train was ready for departure to Lozova, after which the train to Lviv would depart. No passenger trains came to the station from other regions in the morning of April 8. The volunteer said they also expected an evacuation train to depart from Kramatorsk to Khmelnytskyi at 3 p.m. on April 8, and that evacuees to Khmelnytskyi had already started gathering near a tent south of the station’s main building.
15 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with Aliona Kobets, June 1, 2022.
16 Human Rights Watch interview with Anton Maliuskyi, Kramatorsk, May 24, 2022.
17 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with Yuliia Davliatchyna, May 26, 2022.
18 Barotrauma is a physical injury caused by changes in barometric (air) or water pressure.
19 Human Rights Watch interview with Andrii Kovaliov, Kyiv, May 31, 2022.
20 Patrol police said many were killed in and near the regional train. Video shows a motionless body on the platform outside the regional train as people file past.
21 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with Hanna Breslavets, May 31, 2022.
22 Human Rights Watch interview, Kramatorsk, May 24, 2022.
23 Human Rights Watch interview with Oleksander Vovk, Kramatorsk, May 24, 2022.
24 Human Rights Watch interview by phone with Aliona Kobets, June 1, 2022.
25 Human Rights Watch interview with Oleksandr Malysh, Kramatorsk, May 15, 2022.
26 Human Rights Watch interview with Vitaliy Malanchuk, Kramatorsk, May 17, 2022.
27 Human Rights Watch interview with Viktor Kryklii, Kramatorsk, May 17, 2022.
28 Human Rights Watch interview with Valentina Chubatenko, Kramatorsk, May 17, 2022; Human Rights Watch interview by phone with Valentina Chubatenko, July 29, 2022.
29 Human Rights Watch interview with Kyrylenko Vitaliy Pavlovitch, Kramatorsk, May 17, 2022; Human Rights Watch interview with Vitaliy Malanchuk, head of the medical unit of the 81st Airmobile Brigade of the hospital district.
30 Human Rights Watch interview with Andrii Petrychenko, Kramatorsk, May 16, 2022.
31 Human Rights Watch interview with six doctors from the Dnipropetrovsk regional children's clinical hospital, Dnipro, May 25, 2022.
42 In a statement released on Telegram, the Russian Ministry of Defence said: “According to clarified information, the strike on Kramatorsk railway station was carried out by missile division of the Ukrainian armed forces from area of Dobropol'e, 45 kilometres south-west of the city.” Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, April 8, 2022, post to Telegram channel, https://t.me/mod_russia_en/761 (accessed September 1, 2022).
43 “Interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, S.V. Lavrov for Indian Television Channel ‘India Today,’ Moscow, April 19, 2022” (“Интервью Министра иностранных дел Российской Федерации С.В.Лаврова индийскому телеканалу «Индия Тудэй», Москва, 19 апреля 2022 года”), Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, April 20, 2022, https://rus.rusemb.org.uk/article/658 (accessed September 1, 2022).
51 Human Rights Watch interview with Serhii Movhan, Kunie, January 10, 2023; Human Rights Watch interview, Kyiv, February 10, 2023.
52 Human Rights Watch interview with Genia, Kunie, January 11, 2023; Human Rights Watch interview with Serhii, Kunie, January 11, 2023.
53 Human Rights Watch Interview with Natalia Ivanivna, Kunie, January 11, 2023.
54 Human Rights Watch interviews, Kunie, January 10, 2023.
55 Human Rights Watch Interview, Kunie, January 10, 2023.
56 Human Rights Watch interview with Anatolii Biletskyi, Kunie, January 10, 2023; Human Rights Watch interview with Kateryna Stefanyshyna, Kunie, January 11, 2023; Human Rights Watch Interview with Nikolai Matvienko, Kunie, January 11, 2023.
57 Human Rights Watch Interview with Nikolai Matvienko, Kunie, January 11, 2023.