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Ukraine: Rising Civilian Toll in Luhansk

At least 300 Civilians Killed since May, Many in Indiscriminate Bombings

(Berlin) – Unlawful government and insurgent attacks in and around Luhansk are contributing to rising civilian casualties. According to a morgue doctor in Luhansk, explosive weapons have killed more than 300 civilians in the city since May.

During an August 20-22, 2014 visit to Luhansk, under siege by Ukrainian armed forces, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than a dozen people who witnessed or became victims of artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks that killed or injured civilians in populated areas. Many of the attacks appeared to be indiscriminate, in that they did not or could not distinguish between civilians and combatants, Human Rights Watch said. Indiscriminate attacks violate international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.

“With communications cut, there is less information available about the situation in Luhansk than other areas in the east,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the truth is, local residents are subjected to terrifying daily shelling, much of it apparently unlawful, and that the number of civilian casualties is steadily rising.”

The fighting has subjected the city and surrounding area to daily shelling, often killing and injuring civilians.

Since May, Ukrainian armed forces have attempted to retake the city from pro-Russian insurgents. Residents told Human Rights Watch that many residents have not had electricity, gas, and running water for weeks, food and fuel are running low, and it is difficult to communicate because neither cellphones nor landlines work. Human Rights Watch observed long lines at morning water and bread distribution points.

The precarious security situation in the city made it difficult to conduct full investigations of individual attacks. But interviews with witnesses and victims about the attacks, and Human Rights Watch observations on the ground, suggest that many attacks were unlawful in that the attacking force used weapons in populated areas that could not be targeted with sufficient accuracy to distinguish between civilian and military objects.

While in Luhansk, Human Rights Watch examined remnants of 122 mm unguided Grad rockets and artillery projectiles of various calibers, up to 152 mm. These remnants of ordnance had been collected from populated areas where attacks had killed and injured civilians. Human Rights Watch also saw remnants of 300 mm Smerch rockets and cluster munitions delivered by 220 mm Uragan rockets but was not able to establish the circumstances in which they were used and whether they caused civilian casualties.

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect although Ukraine is not party to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. While the other weapons are not prohibited per se, the use of such large-caliber explosive weapons in populated areas is likely to lead to significant civilian casualties because it is difficult to target them precisely or limit their effects to a military target. For this reason Human Rights Watch believes, as a matter of policy, that explosive weapons with wide-area effects should not be used in populated areas.

While it was difficult to establish with certainty responsibility for individual attacks amid ongoing fighting, circumstantial evidence indicates that government forces were responsible for many of the attacks Human Rights Watch investigated in the city and that insurgent forces were responsible for several attacks against areas under government control on the outskirts.

On August 18, for example, shells struck the central market in Luhansk, killing at least four people and causing fires that burned down dozens of small shops. Shells struck the area again in the following days, including during the Human Rights Watch visit. The proximity of the central market to the regional administration building, headquarters for insurgents in Luhansk and one of the government forces’ presumed priority targets, suggests Ukrainian armed forces were responsible for the attack.

Insurgent forces were most likely responsible for an August 10 attack on Krasnyi Yar, a small village north-east of Luhansk, which injured at least two civilians. Witnesses said the Aydar battalion, a volunteer unit of armed citizens that fights together with Ukrainian armed forces, had just established control over the village and set up a checkpoint when salvos of Grad rockets hit the village from the south, from the direction of insurgent-controlled territory.

“The use of explosive weapons with such wide-area effects in a city full of civilians is completely irresponsible and will almost inevitably lead to civilian casualties,” Solvang said. “Whether used by government or insurgent forces, those responsible should be held to account for this callous disregard for civilian life.”

Human Rights Watch urged Ukrainian authorities and rebel forces’ commanders alike to order all their respective forces to immediately stop using Grads in or near populated areas, to cease all use of cluster munitions, and to refrain from indiscriminate attacks.

Human Rights Watch called on Ukraine’s international supporters to urge the Ukrainian government to strictly adhere to international humanitarian law in the conflict, and called on Russia to urge rebel forces to do the same.

Medical Personnel, First Responder Accounts
Medical personnel and first responders consistently told Human Rights Watch that explosive weapons had killed and injured civilians almost every day since shelling started in Luhansk in May 2014.

Anatoly Tureevich, head of the office of the medical examiner in Luhansk, said the city morgue had received more than 300 bodies of civilians, about half of them female, since shelling started. Consulting a spreadsheet, he told Human Rights Watch: 

The numbers vary from day to day depending on the intensity of the shelling. On July 21, we received 20 bodies, on July 22 – 5, July 23 – 3, July 26 – 18, August 4 – 17. August 14 was a bad day with 22 people. Ninety-nine percent of the civilians we receive have died from shrapnel injuries.

The doctor said that the numbers shared with Human Rights Watch only covered civilian casualties.

Doctors and nurses in two of four hospitals in Luhansk that receive war wounded also said that virtually all wounded brought to the hospitals had shrapnel injuries. A doctor at the Luhansk Province Clinical Hospital told Human Rights Watch that from May through August they had treated about 500 patients, nearly all of them for shrapnel injuries. Human Rights Watch interviewed about a dozen patients in Luhansk City Hospital 3 and in the hospital in Shchastya, a town 20 kilometers north of Luhansk. All had shrapnel injuries.

Zhovtnevyi (Oktyabrskiiy) district in northeastern Luhansk is one of the areas of the city that has suffered most from shelling in August. The acting head of the Zhovtnevyi district fire-station described eight recent incidents of shelling in his district alone since the end of July, although for some incidents he could not say whether civilians were killed or injured:

  • On August 19, two shells struck a residential area designated for survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, destroying two houses;
  • On August 17, shells struck the Kamarov, Levchinka, and Solnechnyy sub-districts, killing an 80-year-old woman and wounding a seven-year-old boy;
  • On August 17, Grad rockets struck the Epicenter shopping mall. The resulting fire burned a large part of the shopping mall down to the ground;
  • On August 14 or 15, five shells struck the area between the Vatutino and Solnechnyy sub-districts, killing 18 people;
  • On August 11, Grad rockets struck the Levchinka and Ekira sub-districts, hitting the polyclinic. Two people were severely wounded;
  • Around August 6-8, shells struck in the area of Dom Prirody, an exhibition center close to the Epicenter shopping mall, killing eight people;
  • On August 3 or 5, shells killed two men in the Kamarov and Levchinka sub-districts; and
  • On July 31-August 1, an attack killed nine people and injured four in the Solnechnyy and Kamarov sub-districts.

The Zhovtnevyi fire chief said that there were no insurgent bases or fighters in the areas that were struck, although Human Rights Watch was not able to independently confirm this. Shelling of residential areas had increased since August 13, he said.

The fire chief also said that one of his biggest challenges was that artillery shelling often resumed once firefighters arrive at the scene of an attack:

We use fire trucks with full sirens when we respond to an incident. But very often artillery shelling starts again in that same area when we arrive and we have to withdraw. Four of my people have been wounded. One had his leg amputated from shrapnel wounds. At the Epicenter attack, for example, we tried to extinguish the fire, but artillery shelling started when we arrived and we had to give up. We do nothing else but respond to shelling and rocket attacks these days.

The fire chief said that at the Epicenter they could hear the launch of the artillery shells coming from government-controlled area further north.

A fire department officer in a district of Luhansk also said his first responders had come under artillery fire. “It’s almost the rule,” he said. As an example, he recounted their efforts to extinguish a fire that had started after shells struck the central market on August 18. “We tried twice, but had to withdraw both times because of continuing shelling,” he said. “In the end we just had to let it burn.”

Deliberate targeting of fire brigades would be a violation of the laws of a war and a war crime since they are civilian, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch Observations
Human Rights Watch visited the central market in Luhansk and surrounding areas and saw at least six impact craters in the market, along Chelyuskintsev Street to the west of the market, and by a bus station on Radianska Street to the north of the market. Many small shops in the central market had burned to the ground. A shell had struck a courtyard on the northern side of Radianska Street, killing four people, according to a first responder.

On the day of the Human Rights Watch visit, a shell struck an apartment building about 200 meters from the market, injuring four people, according to a fire department officer. The building was next to the Leninskiy district fire station. The damage on the building indicated that the shell had come from the north.

The impact craters around the central market were within 800 meters of the regional administrative building, some of them very close to the building, which insurgent forces are using as a headquarters.

On the evening of August 21, Human Rights Watch counted about a dozen shells striking central Luhansk and from a hotel saw black smoke rising from central Luhansk, but did not investigate the attack further because of the precarious security situation.

Human Rights Watch also inspected impact craters within the compounds of two hospitals, Luhansk City Hospital 3 and Luhansk Province Clinical Hospital. In both cases, shells had fallen on the edge of the compounds, shattering windows in hospital buildings, but not causing any serious damage to buildings or casualties.

On several occasions, Human Rights Watch heard outgoing mortar and artillery fire from the center of the city, including from a location near Luhansk City Hospital 3. Warring parties are obligated to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, including by not deploying in or firing from residential areas or near hospitals to the extent possible.

Victim Accounts
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine patients in Luhansk City Hospital 3 and three patients in a hospital in Shchastya, a village north of Luhansk to which many Luhansk residents have fled that is under government forces’ control. All the patients showed Human Rights Watch injuries consistent with their accounts. Although the injured described attacks that appear to have been indiscriminate, Human Rights Watch is not in a position to conclusively determine the legality of the attacks that led to their injuries or who was responsible. The text below includes information in some cases that may point to which party was responsible.

Tamara, 67, said that a shell hit her house in Mikolayivka, a village east of Luhansk city, on August 14, killing her son and husband, burning her house to the ground, and seriously injuring her back and hip. She said:

My husband is dead, my son is dead, and I can’t even bury them because I am here. Everything was taken in one moment. My house is destroyed. I have no money. I might as well jump from the window. I have nothing left.

There’s no mobile signal I can’t even call my sister. She doesn’t even know what has happened to my family.

When the shells fall at night my wounds start to bleed again because of the stress. It’s so loud. It never stops. I am afraid to go outside. I am afraid to be here.

Yuriy, 53, a warehouse worker, told Human Rights Watch that he was injured when a shell hit his courtyard in the village of Rozkishne on August 14. At least three people were killed in the attack, including a 28-year-old man:

The mortar landed in the yard and shattered the glass in the windows. A young boy sat next to me. Shrapnel went straight into his heart and he was killed instantly. It happened so quickly, the explosions were close and then everything finished. My neighbor had an injury in the stomach. We don’t know who is firing. We are just sitting here, listening.

Vyacheslav, 74, told Human Rights Watch that he was injured when a shell struck the courtyard of a church in Yubileinoye, a village west of Luhansk:

I went to stand in the line for water. I sat down in the shade, and then suddenly the shelling started. The village had been shelled heavily for one and a half weeks. They had hit several houses but we hoped that they wouldn’t hit the churchyard. The priest said they wouldn’t hit the church.

Vyacheslav said that neighbors had to transport him out of the village first because the ambulance does not come to the village anymore because of the shelling.

Olexander, 50, told Human Rights Watch that he was injured when shells struck the Lenin district in Luhansk between 8 and 9 a.m. on August 14:

I had just left the house to get some bread when the shelling started. Women on the street fell to the ground, praying. One person was killed. Another person, he was around 80 years old, was taken to the hospital for shrapnel injuries.

Anna Dmitrievna, 82, told Human Rights Watch that she was injured when shells struck her neighborhood in Rozkishne on August 4. She said:

When the shelling started I wanted to hide in the basement, but before I could get there a shell exploded close by and I was wounded in my right shoulder. Neighbors took me to the basement where I spent all night, my wound bleeding, until it was safe enough to go to the hospital the next day. My right hand is still not working properly, I can’t even lift a cup with it. I don’t know how I will manage.

Oleksiy, 70, told Human Rights Watch that he was injured when shells struck the Southern sub-district of Luhansk on August 2. He said:

I first heard a whistling sound, then an explosion. One shell hit the playground, the next hit close to me. There was no time to hide or seek shelter.

Iryna, 57, told Human Rights Watch that she was injured when rockets struck Stukalova Balka, a village a couple of kilometers north of Luhansk, around 8 p.m. on August 1. At the time, the village was controlled by the Ukrainian National Guard, which manned a checkpoint about 800 meters from Iryna’s house. Iryna was walking home with her mother-in-law and another elderly woman when the attack happened:

It happened so fast. We had no chance to flee. I heard at least three explosions. I pushed the two elderly women to the ground, but we were all injured.

Iryna, who used to work as a nurse in Luhansk, lost her foot from shrapnel injuries. Her mother-in-law lost her leg. The third woman suffered shrapnel injuries to her left arm.

Iryna’s sister told Human Rights Watch that at least one house caught fire in the attack. The sister said that the fire marks on the house showed that the rockets had struck the southern side of the house, an indication that the rockets came from insurgent-controlled area to the south.

Yana, 39, told Human Rights Watch that she was injured when a shell struck her house in Krasnyi Yar (Chervonyi Yar), a village northeast of Luhansk, on August 10:

I was in my bedroom when I suddenly heard two whistling sounds. There was no time to hide. I managed to crawl out of the window and then I started screaming.

Yana lost her left eye and hearing on her right side from the shelling.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed a 50-year-old welder who was injured in the same attack. He said:

First the insurgents were in control, then the Ukrainian army attacked. Both sides were firing at each other and it was not possible to determine whose rockets were falling on us. But then the [pro-Kiev] Aydar battalion came and set up a checkpoint, and the attacks all started again. I was in the courtyard when something exploded. Now I can’t feel my legs.

The welder suffered shrapnel injuries to his leg and left arm and the blast injured his back.

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