Civilians in Ukraine’s northern city of Chernihiv have had limited access to running water, electricity, or heat since early March 2022, when Russian forces escalated their assault on the city, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since at least March 24, Russian forces have effectively laid siege to the city, controlling almost all access to the city and attacking the bridge that provided the last remaining access route in and out of the city to Ukraine-held territory. This has prevented the evacuation of the wounded, including children, and use of the route for the delivery and distribution of humanitarian goods, including critical medical supplies, to the civilian population.
“Civilians in Chernihiv have been trapped for days, in a cascading crisis without access to basic services and with no means of escape, all while living under the constant threat of Russian attacks,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Russian along with Ukrainian forces need to take the necessary steps to allow civilians who want to, to safely leave the city and to ensure the basic needs are met for civilians who remain.”
The conditions in Chernihiv bear resemblance to those in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where the situation dramatically deteriorated as residents sheltered in basements with little to no access to running water, power, heat, medical care, or mobile phone service as Russian forces laid siege to the city.
On March 29, a deputy Russian defense minister said that Russia would “reduce military activity” near Kyiv, the capital, and Chernihiv. However, as of March 30, there does not appear to have been any significant reduction in military activities in and around the two cities. Military activity by any party should not arbitrarily prevent the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance to residents nor the safe evacuation of civilians who choose to leave.
Human Rights Watch spoke with a city official, a doctor in Chernihiv, and a resident who recently fled the city. They described a deteriorating situation, in which access to water, electricity, heating, and phone and internet communications has almost completely disappeared in most parts of the city over the past few days. Acute water shortages pose a particularly grave risk to the approximately 130,000 residents who remain in the city, out of the pre-war population of almost 300,000 people. The lack of electricity also severely limits access to health care. The full extent of civilian casualties and damage to the city’s infrastructure cannot be assessed due to the continued hostilities and limited communications.
Olexander Lomako, secretary of the city council of Chernihiv, estimates that more than 350 civilians have been killed during the attacks on the city. “But these are very rough figures,” he told Human Rights Watch on March 30. “Lots of people remain under the destroyed houses. People are often forced to bury their neighbors and relatives in the yards of their houses. So we can’t even count the exact number of victims. Moreover, there are injured people coming to hospitals every day.… Some will not survive the wounds and lots of them will remain with disabilities for life. Some lost a leg, an eye, or an arm.”
Russian military attacks on Chernihiv began on February 24, the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Human Rights Watch previously documented a Russian airstrike on a residential neighborhood in the city on March 3 that damaged multiple buildings, including a hospital, killing and injuring dozens of civilians, according to witnesses and doctors Human Rights Watch spoke with as well as local officials. Since then, attacks on Chernihiv escalated as Russian forces moved to encircle the city.
On the evening of March 23, the main bridge over the Desna River, on the road leading out of Chernihiv south toward Kyiv, was destroyed. This effectively cut off vehicle traffic to and from areas under Ukrainian control, as Russian forces control the other main roads in and out of the city. On March 26, several Ukrainian and international journalists who were reporting from the destroyed bridge said the area came under sustained heavy shelling while they were there, injuring one of them.
“This bridge let us receive humanitarian aid and evacuate injured and peaceful civilians – women and children,” Lomako said. “Now there is only [a] pedestrian bridge left. And [when] somebody dares to cross it, Russians shell the bridge.” Human Rights Watch has no information on specific efforts to deliver impartial humanitarian assistance via access routes under Russian control and whether Russian forces have denied access.
Lomako said that the biggest problem for residents remaining in Chernihiv is the absence of a water supply. They have had to use generators to pump water from wells, he said, but there is not enough to supply water to everyone, and some have had to rely on water from rivers and lakes, or melted snow.
Vladyslav Atroshenko, Chernihiv’s mayor, said at a media briefing on March 26 that the city was “blown to smithereens” and that officials were trying to evacuate by “any means” 44 people with severe injuries, military, and civilians, including three children.
A doctor Human Rights Watch spoke with on March 26 said that his hospital in Chernihiv only had electricity from its generators and the generators were starting to run out of fuel. Under the current situation, the generators are scheduled to be turned on for four hours each day. “We use that time to cook baby formula for the babies,” he said. Surgery requires a lot of generator fuel, he said, and the generators do not provide enough power for hospital staff to properly operate medical equipment like their advanced X-ray machine, which helps them assess injuries. The water shortages have also created problems. “Since we don’t have power and water, we can’t sterilize our medical tools, so we’ve had to use disposable kits,” he said.
Ensuring access to electricity and potable water will be crucial to help prevent the spread of communicable waterborne disease from ingesting contaminated water, Human Rights Watch said. Severe dehydration can lead to hypothermia, leg cramps, delirium, blood pressure loss, organ failure, and death. Children, pregnant women, and older people are more prone to the effects of dehydration.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits attacks directed at and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects as well as attacks that cause anticipated harm to civilians disproportionate to the expected military benefit. The laws of war do not prohibit sieges by land and blockades by sea of enemy forces, but sieges cannot include tactics that prevent civilians’ access to items essential for their survival such as water, food, and medicine. Parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid passage of impartial humanitarian aid for all civilians in need and not arbitrarily interfere with it.
Furthermore, all parties to an armed conflict must protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including those necessary for water distribution and sanitation. Starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited.
Under international human rights law, states must respect the right to water which includes refraining from limiting access to, or destroying, water services and infrastructure as a punitive measure during armed conflicts as well as respecting the obligations to protect objects indispensable for survival of the civilian population set out above. Parties to the conflict urgently need to ensure that the civilian population in Chernihiv and other areas affected by the hostilities have access to water and electricity without discrimination or unlawful restrictions.
“Civilians trapped in Chernihiv are experiencing echoes of the horrors experienced by those in Mariupol over recent weeks,” Weir said. “Civilians should not have to or be allowed to suffer like this. Parties to the conflict need to abide by their international responsibilities and protect all those who remain in Chernihiv."