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UN monitors cultural destruction in Ukraine with satellites

October 27, 2022

Hundreds of Ukrainian cultural sites have been affected by the Russian invasion. UNESCO is using satellite imagery to keep track and prepare recovery.

Procession around a church during the celebrations of the Orthodox Easter in Dnipro city, Ukraine
Ukrainians rushed to protect many of their cultural sites when Russian forces first invadedImage: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The United Nation's cultural agency UNESCO has announced that it is keeping track of the damage done to Ukraine's cultural heritage sites since the Russian invasion with the use of satellite imagery.

UNESCO plans on releasing a database for experts to compare "before and after" photos sourced from private satellites to evaluate the level of destruction on Ukrainian cultural sites.

"It's important for us to document the damage, but also to make sure we have the information available before the recovery," UNESCO's emergency department head Krista Pikkat said.

How does the UNESCO database work?

Work on the database began months ago, Pikkat said on Wednesday, adding, "We actually realized that, this wealth of information, we needed to put it on a platform for our experts so that we can monitor the situation."

Working with a small team of experts from the UN Satellite Center UNOSAT, they send a list of potentially affected areas to commercial suppliers who provide detailed images for around $10 (€10) per square kilometer.

Ukrainians archive cultural heritage

The agency has already verified damage to more than 200 sites, including 88 religious sites, 15 museums, 76 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 18 monuments and 10 libraries.

These were located mostly in the eastern regions of Ukraine — namely Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk — as well as the capital Kyiv.

None of Ukraine's seven "World Heritage Sites" have been damaged, according to the platform.

Ukraine's cultural heritage under threat

"Our conclusion is it's bad, and it may continue to get even worse," Pikkat told reporters in Geneva.

"Cultural heritage is very often collateral damage during wars but sometimes it's specifically targeted as it's the essence of the identity of countries," she added.

US President Joe Biden has previously accused the Kremlin of trying to wipe out Ukrainian culture.

Biden: Russia wants to 'wipe out' Ukrainian culture and identity

UNESCO has already been working with Ukrainian authorities on protecting its cultural heritage from Russian attacks. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month made an official bid to have the historic city of Odessa added to the World Heritage List in an attempt to prevent further Russian air strikes.

There have also been discussions about temporarily removing certain items from the country until the war has ended, but Pikkat called that a "difficult call."

ab/rc (AP, AFP)