As the crisis in eastern Ukraine deepens, the world’s attention is currently focused on the Ukrainian and Russian governments’ race to deliver aid to civilians in the besieged city of Luhansk. But that shouldn’t eclipse the crucial need for all parties to avoid harming civilians with explosive weapons attacks and by locating military targets within or near civilian populations.
The humanitarian situation in Luhansk is indeed very difficult. In Shchastya, a town just north of Luhansk under Ukrainian government control, we spoke to more than a dozen people who fled Luhansk in the past few days. They said that it’s difficult to find drinking water, there is no electricity or gas, and they feel cut off from the rest of the world as cell phones no longer work. Food in the shops, which operate only a few hours a day, from morning to noon, is scarce, and the prices for basic necessities have gone up.
Many who have the means have already fled but others, especially the frail and the elderly, are left in an increasingly desperate situation. One man told us about his 80-year-old paralyzed neighbor who is alone and abandoned in her apartment. A friend stops by every once in a while to bring her water. Delivering impartial humanitarian aid to the people trapped in the devastated city would make a big difference.
Practically all the new arrivals to Shchastya we interviewed today said the main reason they fled was the constant shelling. Some said they’d practically lived in basements for the last few days.
Lilya, who lived close to the city center, told us that she decided to leave when a shell struck the roof of the neighboring house and then another explosion killed three women in the neighboring street. The next day she heard that four more civilians were killed by shelling in her neighborhood.
A family that arrived in Shchastya this morning told us shrapnel from unguided rockets, Grads, wounded their 81-year-old grandmother two weeks ago. When the old woman was released from the hospital a few days ago she still could not walk – and carrying her down to the basement every time the shelling began proved to be an insurmountable task.
In some cases there are strong indications that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the attacks. On August 13, several shells landed in a residential area in the eastern part of Luhansk, killing several civilians. Zoya, who left immediately after the attacks, said she believed that the shells came from government-controlled territory and might have been aimed at insurgents based nearby. In other cases, evidence points toward the insurgents. On August 1, several rockets struck a village about 10 kilometers north of Luhansk. Irina lost her left foot as a result of shrapnel injuries. Her sister said that damage to a neighboring house was consistent with the rockets coming from the south, where insurgent forces were located.
Zhanna from Krasny Yar, another village close to Luhansk, told us that a rocket exploded in her yard when she and her husband were both outside. She lost a chunk of her foot, and had a broken leg and a concussion. Her husband is paralyzed from the waist down. Their house is approximately a kilometer from a checkpoint manned by Ukrainian forces, which might have been the target of insurgent forces.
But in many cases, people just don’t know who fired the shells. Valentina, who fled Luhansk this morning to protect her family, said: “It’s simply become unbearable. The separatists fire Grad rockets and mortars on Ukrainian forces from the city. Then the Ukrainian forces return fire. And in the middle of this we’re the ones who suffer. If a house gets hit or someone dies we don’t really know which shell did the damage. We just want this to stop.”
As a matter of policy, explosive weapons shouldn’t be used in populated areas because of the risk to civilians. The one thing that would dramatically improve the humanitarian situation in and around Luhansk is if both Ukrainian and Russia-backed insurgent forces uphold their obligations and take greater precautions to avoid civilian casualties.