An old woman standing next to the remains of her house in Kondrashevka, southeastern Ukraine. The house was severely damaged in an alleged Ukrainian air strike on July 2, 2014.

Petro Poroshenko
President of Ukraine

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to raise issues relating to the conduct of military operations in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, in particular the shelling of a hospital in Krasny Liman and air strikes in the villages of Luhanskaya and Kondrashevka.

Human Rights Watch considers that the hostilities between Ukrainian government forces and armed insurgent forces identifying themselves as the South-East Army and the Donetsk People’s Army constitute an internal, or non-international, armed conflict under international humanitarian law. Therefore, Ukrainian forces and insurgent armed groups are bound by customary international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects and to refrain from attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or would cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by all parties. We have documented numerous incidents of killings, kidnapping, torture and ill-treatment, threats and other abuses by insurgent forces against political activists, civil servants, investigative journalists, and the like. We also documented several cases of enforced disappearances of journalists working for Russian TV stations and self-proclaimed Donetsk People Republic’s (DNR) administration by Ukrainian forces.

From July 1 to 5, Human Rights Watch carried out a field mission to areas where the armed conflict is ongoing to examine compliance with international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. We received information that insurgents were unlawfully holding civilians captive and subjecting them to cruel and degrading treatment, which would constitute a war crime. We also examined an apparently targeted attack on a hospital in Krasny Liman, in Donetsk region which resulted in civilian casualties and loss of civilian life and property during aerial strikes in the Luhansk region. We call upon you to ensure a thorough, prompt, and effective investigation into these cases, to publicize the investigation’s findings, and in case violations of international humanitarian law are established, to hold perpetrators accountable.

Krasny Liman

On July 2, Human Rights Watch visited Krasny Liman, some 20 kilometers southeast of Sloviansk, which at the time was the insurgents’ stronghold in the Donetsk region. The visit was carried out in cooperation with a leading Russian non-governmental organization, “Memorial Human Rights Center,” and three Ukrainian human rights organizations (Kharkiv Human Rights Group, Independent Monitors’ Organization, and Civil Liberties Center), and the account below reflects the report these groups published on July 8.

Russian and pro-insurgent media had reported that on June 3, during operations to re-establish government control over Krasny Liman, Ukrainian forces’ shells had hit a hospital on the southern edge of town, killing a doctor and wounding several civilians. One of the leaders of the self-proclaimed DNR also stated in an interview for Russian federal television that Ukrainian servicemen killed “25 wounded [insurgent] fighters in the Krasny Liman hospital.” When speaking to the press during his visit to Normandy, France, on June 6, Vladimir Putin made a special mention of the Ukrainian forces, “taking-over a hospital and shooting the wounded dead.” Ukrainian authorities denied the allegations. Human Rights Watch found it imperative to look into this highly publicized case

Human Rights Watch interviewed a commander and several servicemen of the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Artyomovsk battalion, several Kransy Liman residents, and the hospital personnel. We also visited the hospital. Human Rights Watch was not able to find evidence to corroborate the allegations that wounded persons were shot in the hospital. However we have strong grounds to believe Ukrainian forces deliberately targeted the hospital for attack as they believed—falsely—that there were insurgents on the ground. Under international humanitarian law it is prohibited to direct an attack against hospitals, medical units, or any place used for sheltering the wounded and sick, including combatants hors de combat. Article 3, common to all Geneva Conventions, and applicable to non-international armed conflict also requires that anyone not taking active part in hostilities, including insurgents placed hors de combat by sickness or injury shall be treated humanely, and that the wounded and sick are to be cared for.

The hospital that had been shelled is known as the “railway hospital” due to the fact that under normal circumstances it provides services exclusively to workers of the railway system and their families as part of their benefits package. It has 100 beds, 80 of which were filled on the day of the attack, according to the medical personnel interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The chief doctor, Leonid Zagursky, and two junior medical personnel told Human Rights Watch that on June 3 the shelling started unexpectedly, and that they had no time to evacuate patients or take other precautions.

Medical personnel told Human Rights Watch that mortar shelling began at around 3:30 p.m. and the attack lasted no longer than 10 minutes, with a total of nine shells hitting the hospital and its grounds. Dr. Zagursky told Human Rights Watch that the hospital’s only surgeon, 62-year-old Vasiliy Shistka, had just finished a planned operation when the shelling started. As he was walking out of the operating room, a shell fragment hit him on the head. He died several days later as a result of his injury. No other hospital personnel or patients were killed or wounded in the attack.

The chief doctor told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of June 4, a group of Ukrainian servicemen approached the hospital in an armored carrier to carry out a sweep operation, as they believed insurgents were using the hospital for military purposes. According to Dr. Zagursky, they did not show any identification documents but demanded that he lead them through all the wards. Doctor Zagursky had to move from ward to ward opening doors and several servicemen with cocked automatic guns walked behind him. Having examined all the wards and hospital grounds in that manner, the military acknowledged there were no insurgents present.

Doctor Zagursky told Human Rights Watch:

I was very stressed. My hospital was severely damaged, my colleague was dying. I screamed at them, “Why did you do this? Why did you attack the hospital? It’s full of patients, our surgeon is going to die, and more people could’ve been hit!” If you have nine shells fired once at the same place you just know it’s targeted. Of course, I did not know for a fact the mortars were theirs [Ukrainian] but as they came to the hospital “to mop it up” from insurgents that actually weren’t there … so, their commander showed me a map and said, “Look here. Here is your hospital marked on the map. And it’s marked specifically as an insurgent hospital. That’s why it happened.” I said, “But you’ve looked all over and you haven’t found anything suspicious. We’ve never had any insurgents here. It’s an ordinary hospital and we’re only servicing railroad workers.…” Five days later, another group of Ukrainian servicemen came to the hospital for another “mop-up” visit. I complained to the town commandant and they stopped bothering us.

Two medical workers, interviewed separately from Dr. Zagursky, confirmed the latter’s account.

The hospital suffered significant damage from the shelling. In particular, the roof and infrastructure of general therapy wing is seriously damaged, as are the walls and infrastructure of surgery wing, gynecology wing, and the hospital’s pharmacy. The windows were shattered by the explosions and glass shards and other debris still had not been fully cleaned up on the day of Human Right Watch’s visit.

Human Rights Watch also viewed numerous photographs taken by the hospital personnel right after the attacks and examined nine craters from the shells and several remaining fragments, which were consistent with a 120 mm mortar attack. Human Rights Watch also examined the neighboring buildings and noted that they have not suffered any damage except very small shell fragment damage to some of the walls, which also supports the chief doctor’s belief in the targeted nature of the attack.

Dr. Zagursky told Human Rights Watch that he filed a complaint with the district prosecutor’s office and passed all shell fragments and photographs to prosecutors. The prosecutor’s office staff recorded his testimony and examined the hospital grounds. The investigation is currently ongoing.

As there is strong evidence suggesting the targeted nature of this attack on the hospital, which resulted in a civilian casualty and significant damage to the infrastructure, Human Rights Watch urges you to ensure the investigation is full and impartial and its results are made public.

We are concerned that this attack was a violation of the prohibition of directing attacks against hospitals or medical personnel as well as civilians and those hors de combat due to sickness or injury.

Luhanskaya and Staraya Kondrashevskaya (Kondrashevka), Luhansk Region

On July 4, Human Rights Watch, jointly with Memorial Human Rights Center, visited the villages of Luhanskaya – close to the Russian border and approximately 10 kilometers northeast of the city of Luhansk, one of the remaining insurgents’ strongholds in eastern Ukraine – and the neighboring Staraya Kondrashevskaya. Also known by local residents as Kondrashevka, Staraya Kondrashevskaya is officially viewed as the northern part of Luhanskaya and is located on the other side of the railroad crossing. In both villages we documented civilian casualties and property damage resulting from two alleged aerial strikes on July 2. The combined population of Luhanskaya and Kondrashevka is about 15,000 people.

In a statement cited in media reports, Andrei Lysenko, spokesperson for the National Security and Defense Council, said that the Ministry of Defense had seized insurgent Grad launchers and had determined that they had been used to shell Stanitsya-Luganskaya (Luhanskaya), and firmly denied that Ukrainian forces’ artillery or aviation had been used to attack this village. (See for example, http://korrespondent.net/ukraine/3387085-stanytsu-luhanskuui-obstrelialy-separatysty-est-zhertvy-tsentr-ato; http://inforesist.org/sily-ato-zaxvatili-ustanovku-grad-s-kotoroj-terroristy-vchera-obstrelyali-stanicu-luganskuyu/.)

Human Rights Watch’s research in Luhanskaya and Kondrashevka revealed no evidence of Grad use in the villages and strongly indicated that aviation attacks had taken place on the villages. Sixteen local residents of these two villages interviewed by Human Rights Watch described hearing the noise of a plane engine, and several also said they saw the actual aircraft in the sky. Multiple shell entry points, which were also examined by Human Rights Watch, suggest airstrikes as they were approximately two meters in diameter. Human Rights Watch also collected some unidentified explosive weapon fragments, though most of the fragments had been cleared away before our arrival. The fragments and the damage we documented are consistent with allegations of air strikes.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to establish conclusively which side conducted the aerial strikes. However, Human Rights Watch’s research suggest that Ukrainian forces may have conducted the strikes for the purpose of destroying an insurgent checkpoint/base located on a small hill around 800 meters from Moskva-Donbas Street, which was hit in Luhanskaya. The base is about three kilometers from Ostrovskaya Street, which was hit in neighboring Kondrashevka. During the three-and-a-half hours Human Rights Watch spent in each of these villages, our researchers did not see any insurgent presence, except at the checkpoint near Moskva-Donbas Street. Local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied that insurgents were in the village on July 2 and denied the insurgents had maintained firing positions inside the villages.

Luhanskaya

Human Rights Watch examined six severely destroyed houses on Moskva-Donbas Street in Luhanskaya and spoke to six of the people who lived in and owned these homes. We also examined the local police department building, which was damaged. They referred to two deaths – an elderly male resident known in the village by his patronymic Palych (full name unknown) and another man who was apparently visiting with him when the strike occurred around 10.30 a.m. They also said that resident of Moskva-Donbas Street, a man by the last name of Podgoev, was wounded.

Ekaterina Bogdanova, owner and resident of 17 Moskva-Donbas Street, which was largely destroyed in the attack, told Human Rights Watch:

My husband and I spent the night in the basement of the local history museum – there was mortar fire between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m., and there were some 50 people there with us, the place is used as a shelter by those who don’t have proper basements. So, we only returned home in the morning when everything was quiet and went to bed. We awoke at 10.30, there was this horrid, deafening noise, debris was flying everywhere, and our house was collapsing on us. My husband covered me with his body … it’s a miracle we’re both OK except for small burns and lacerations.… This house was built by my family 203 years ago, it survived World War II and now it’s gone. How could it happen? Is this our punishment for living not far from the [insurgents’] checkpoint? Does this make us terrorists?

Bogdanova’s husband, Alexei Shelikhov, confirmed her account in an interview with Human Rights Watch.

A 25-year-old local resident, Stas (last name withheld on his request), told Human Rights Watch that he was at home when the airstrike happened at 10:30 am. He said:

I heard the rumble of a plane. I poked my head out of the window on the second floor trying to take a close look. The plane made three circles and suddenly, when it was again on the side which I could not see [the house blocked the view to the other side] there was this whooshing sound, a whooshing roar.… My daughter was napping right here on the bed – see, it’s now all covered in debris and the wall’s full of holes and half-collapsed – and I rushed to her and screamed to my wife, ‘Run, run!’ We literally rolled down the stairs with the girl in my arms, trying to cover her from flying debris. It’s a miracle we’re alive…

When Human Rights Watch interviewed Stas, he said he continued to have ringing in his ears, doctors in Luhansk had diagnosed his wife with a concussion, and their three-year-old daughter was waking up with nightmares.

Kondrashevka

Human Rights Watch documented greater civilian casualties and even more significant property damage on Ostrovskaya Street, in Kondrashevka. Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 witnesses who provided consisted descriptions of the airstrike on Ostrovskaya Street, which occurred at about noon on July 2. They listed nine civilian deaths resulting from the attack, including two children (ages were approximated by interviewees):

  1. Lidia Kirnosova, 51
  2. Stanislav Ivanov, 36
  3. Dmitry Shamardin, 45
  4. Mikhail Kalugin, 65
  5. Andrei Dyusik, 50
  6. Vladimir Ermilov, 49
  7. Ivan Ermilov, 5, son of Vladimir Ermilov
  8. Valentina Mironova, 62
  9. Three of the people we spoke to also referred to a four-year-old girl by the last name of Romanova, first name unknown, who was visiting her grandmother, Nadya Romanova, at the time of the attack.

Also, according to local residents, three people were wounded, including Tatiana Gazhemon whose leg had been blown off and who was in critical condition in the local hospital. Two local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they saw Gazhemon being taken to the local hospital and inquired about her afterwards. The other two wounded, one of whom was interviewed by Human Rights Watch, were released from the hospital on July 4, having received treatment for fractures and light flesh wounds. Among the ten people interviewed by Human Rights Watch two lost their immediate family members.

Human Rights Watch examined nine destroyed houses on Ostrovskaya Street. Two of the houses – described by local residents as two-story buildings each with four apartments – caught fire and burned to the ground. The other seven were still partly standing but made uninhabitable due to collapsed roofs, collapsed walls, or fire damage. We also saw two houses that were damaged but remain habitable. The attack left Ostrovskaya Street with neither water nor electricity.

Human Rights Watch examined about a dozen shell entry point craters on both sides of the destroyed houses – on the road in front of them and in the backyards. The craters were at least two meters in diameter and therefore consistent with an air strike.

Galina Lobach, 67, who lives on Ostrovskaya Street, told Human Rights Watch:

It was close to noon. I was in the house alone and three [male] neighbors were sitting on the veranda across the street. There was a plane and this horrid whooooooooooooosh which just deafened me and everything was shaking … the three men [were killed]. Shreds [of their bodies] were everywhere.... It was so hard to figure out which body part belonged to whom. One was identified by a tattoo on his arm … no heads, no feet.... My other neighbor, from the house next door was killed in her garden. I cleaned what I could.

When Human Rights Watch approached Lobach for an interview she was searching her vegetable garden for remaining body fragments and the smell of charred human flesh still lingered in the air. Lobach’s face, arms, and legs bore multiple small lacerations from injuries she sustained from the attack.

Another local resident, 63-year-old Nadezhda Golovkova, resident of House #8/3 on Ostrovskaya Street, provided Human Rights Watch with the following account:

At around 10.30 [a.m.] I heard explosions from not too far away. I ran outside to find out what’s happening and a neighbor was talking on his cell phone … he hangs up and says, “A friend called me from Luhanskaya and he says they’re being bombed from a plane … bombs are falling on them from sky. A plane is bombing them.” I got so frightened, I felt faint. So, I went back inside to lie down. I was lying in bed, on top of the blanket, for a while, right here, and then there the roar of a plane, and this awful whooshing noise, and the wall next to my head shattered and I could not see anything from the debris.

Golovkova said that her neighbor’s son, five-year-old Ivan Ermilov, and his father had been among those killed by the strike, and that Ivan had just celebrated his fifth birthday the day before.

In light of strong allegations suggesting that the air strikes were carried out by Ukrainian forces, a detailed investigation is called for. If there were no insurgents deployed in Luhanskaya and Kondrashevka at the time, the attacks may have been in violation of international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the actions of the insurgents violate Ukrainian law, and that their military operations may also violate international humanitarian law by failing to take all feasible measures to minimize harm to civilians. However, while the Ukrainian government is entitled to carry out law enforcement and military operations to counter the armed insurrection, it also has obligations never to direct attacks at civilians or civilian objects or to engage in indiscriminate attacks; to distinguish at all times between civilian objects and military objectives; and to adhere strictly to the principle of proportionality insofar as attacks that may cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, in excess of the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, are prohibited. Under international humanitarian law the insurgents are bound by the same obligations, and under human rights standards, all parties must take all feasible measures to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects.

Respectfully yours,

 

Hugh Williamson

Director

Europe and Central Asia Division