(Click here to watch and listen to the video version of this blog entry)
Every so often you’ll come across a town so small that Google doesn’t know where anything is. Or does it? Sometimes the information is there but we need to trick Google into giving us what we are looking for.
That was what happened when I came across evidence of shelling in a school in the small town of Kukhari in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine. This is such a tiny village that Google Maps wasn’t even able to pinpoint on the map the location of the school. In fact, the only 3 things that exist in this place, according to Google, are a cafe, a bar and a supermarket. If you zoom enough you’ll also get to see a post office. That’s it.
So how do we find the mysterious location of this shelled school? We have to use some of our OSINT skills for that, so let’s get started.
A Telegram post, shared on March 31st, showed 7 images of damage due to shelling done by the Russian forces, in a town called Kukhari, in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine.
Below is the screenshot of telegram post containing the gallery of images and a small description that said:
“Рашисты “освободили” школу и мемориал погибшим во Второй мировой войне
Детали: так выглядит рашистская “денацификация” мирного населения. Занятое орками село Кухари на Киевщине ВСУ освободили еще в середине марта, но оккупанты не прекращают обстреливать населенный пункт.”
Which translates, from Russian to English, to:
“Rashists “liberated” the school and the memorial to those who died in World War II
Details: this is how the rashist “denazification” of the civilian population looks like. The village of Kukhari in the Kyiv region, occupied by orcs, was liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine in mid-March, but the invaders do not stop shelling the village.”
As you may be able to see on the screenshot above, there are seven different images on the telegram post. In such cases we just have to pick what we want to geolocate since it clearly shows multiple locations. So for this instance we’ll work on trying to find the geolocation of the local school.
Below you can see the only two photos of the school building that will, hopefully, give us some insight on how the premises look like.
On the left we have a photo of the school entrance. We can see the rainbow painted stairs leading up to two doors and above them there’s two blue signs, a longer one with the name of the school and a smaller one we are not able to read. There are also five big windows, two on each side and one above the blue sign.
In the second photo we can still see part of the first image but now we know that the walls on the right of the building form a 90º angle. This will be useful when trying to locate it on the map later on.
Google Maps Photo Gallery – Hidden Treasures
We’re lucky that most of the data originating from Ukraine is submitted by users that give us some insight of their location (in general). In this case we know that we’re looking for a town in Kyiv Oblast called Kukhari (Кухари) which is great to get us started.
Going to Google Maps and searching for Кухари this is what we get. There’s the cafe, the bar and the supermarket on the map. That’s about it.
If you have been reading my articles you will (probably) know that I always like to click that image on the top left. It leads to a gallery within Google with photos, videos, 360º panoramic view, etc, of whatever you just selected. This could be photos and videos of a restaurant, a zoo, or in this case, a small town. Previously I have even found a small gallery with pictures of the outside of a public bathroom in Mariupol which helped me geolocate a group of pro-Russian Chechen men in the area. So trust me when I say that it’s always worth checking, so let’s click it.
Surprisingly there were plenty of photos of the small town of Kukhari in this Google Maps gallery, although most of them simply show a road and fields which is not too useful for us.
However, in the middle of them, I found 3 that I wanted to share.
The one below, uploaded in June 2021, shows the village from (possibly) a drone video. You can see a church, the main road and several buildings on each side. At this point it’s not too useful but later on we might come back to it.
The second photo shows two skulls, one on the ground and the other perched on a dead tree branch. They once belonged to cows and have absolutely no relevance to this investigation. I just like skulls and found it amusing.
The third photo was a great surprise. I immediately recognised it as the same bus stop shown on the last photo of the telegram post.
Let’s compare them quickly. On the left we have the photo we got from telegram and on the right the photo above we found on Google Maps. You can see in both the bus stop with the name of the town above (dark blue, 2), the decorative shape on the wall (orange, 3) and the big electricity pole next to it (light green, 1).
Somehow we got a visual match without even looking for it!
Now that we have checked all the gallery photos on Google Maps and found no images of the school what else can we do?
Tricking Google Maps
Just because Google Maps doesn’t show the location doesn’t mean it can’t; let’s try to trick Google into giving us the correct place.
For that I went to Google translate and input the words “kukhari school” and got the translation from English to Ukrainian: “школа кухарі”.
Back again on Google Maps I input the “школа кухарі” in the search bar to see if we can trick Google into giving us the coordinates of the local school.
And lo and behold, suddenly Google knows the location.
Finding the place is only the first step. Afterwards you need to actually prove that this is the correct location. Google is not infallible and we need to compare the images we got from the telegram post with the building on the map that Google claims belongs to the school.
So how can we find a way to get more photos to compare?
If we click on the school icon in Google Maps we’ll be able to check the gallery as I explained above. Unfortunately there’s only one photo and it’s of a playground which is not of much use for us now.
However, if you scroll a bit further down you’ll see something very helpful, the school’s website!
Clicking on the link will lead you to the town’s school website which, surprisingly, is full of information and last updated in February 2022. And if there’s one thing that schools always have in their website is a gallery with images so we just need to find them.
As expected the website is in Ukrainian so I use my Google translate add-on to get it all to English and see if I can spot a section with a photo gallery.
The “Photo albums” link in the left menu shown below sounds promising so let’s check it out.
There are 64 images and some of them look like they could have been taken close to the building entrance seen in the photos from the telegram post. Unfortunately, after going through them all, none was close enough to get a good match.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no clear photos of the entrance of the building. It just means that they are not located in the “Photo albums” section. The website is quite big and full of content, links and text so the fastest way to look at all the photos in it is to go back to Google.
Another little trick we can use to get Google to help us is to type “site:kuharivska-zosh.at.ua” in the search bar so that it only gives results within a specific website, in this case the schools’ one, and then go to the “images” tab so that we only see the images.
It doesn’t take much to immediately spot the image highlighted below, shared in May 2021.
And here it is, the entrance to the school. We can see the rainbow coloured steps, the two doors, the blue sign above it and the windows on each side.
I have chosen to blur the faces of all the children as it is bad enough their school got destroyed, they don’t need to be forever associated with it.
If you keep on scrolling you’ll find even more photos like the ones below where we can see other details such as the big sign above the doors with the name of the school, the right wall of the building next to the windows and the left side of the building.
With all of this information we can already try to find the building using Google Maps again. In fact, when I found one of the images above I also found the school’s address which matches the same location that we tricked Google Maps into giving us.
Validating the coordinates
Now that we have the geolocation we need to pinpoint it on the map by analysing it and matching the details on both the satellite view and the photos we got from the telegram post and the school’s website.
Below you can see how the shape of the building seen from satellite imagery (left) matches the one seen on the photo we found on the website of the school entrance (right), which in turn matches the telegram photos.
Therefore our coordinates for the school are:
At this point I remembered I had seen a (probably) drone photo earlier so let’s go back to that one.
If you zoom out a bit on our Google Maps location you’ll see that we are near a church, highlighted in a red circle below. That same church is visible on the right bottom of the drone photo, also highlighted in red on the right. Let’s compare the two. Within the red square you can see the school we have geolocated and across from the road you can spot the church.
If we zoom in a bit on the school we can even see how the details of the drone image match the details of the building entrance photo found on the school’s website.
And because I always like to check YouTube just in case, I happened to find a news piece from 2021 in which you can see the scene below. Does it seem familiar?
Let’s go back to our telegram post and compare the photos.
On the left we see the photo after the Russian shelling, shared on telegram, and on the right a screenshot from the news story shared on YouTube in 2021. They are a great match with 3 identical buildings and a tree.
If we keep on digging around YouTube you’ll find yet another video published on March 30, 2022. The man visible in some of the photos in the telegram post showing the destroyed school can also be seen in this footage. The video and the photos were likely taken on the same day.
Here’s a few screenshots of the video I just mentioned. In the last photo you can see the face of a man that is still yet to understand why a small town school was a target for a missile. It’s similar to my face looking at these sorts of photos.
Google is very often your best friend when doing geolocations but that doesn’t mean it will always just give you all the answers immediately. Every so often you’ll have to tweak your search a bit and trick it into giving you what you’re looking for.
The data is there, you just need to find a way to locate (and geolocate) it.
I hope this entry was useful to anyone wanting to learn more on how to do geolocations using OSINT techniques.
Thank you for reading!