The killing of a schoolboy and an 18-year-old during shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Wednesday highlights a larger pattern of indiscriminate attacks which could amount to war crimes, Amnesty International said today.
“Both Ukrainian government and separatist forces must immediately stop carrying out indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director of Amnesty International.
“These continuing civilian deaths – a predictable result of such attacks – are inexcusable and those responsible on both sides must be held accountable.”
During a research mission in late September and early October, Amnesty International documented more than 20 recent civilian deaths due to shelling and rocket fire in the eastern Ukrainian towns of Donetsk, Avdiivka, and Debaltseve. Most of the deaths, which took place in residential neighbourhoods, appeared to be the result of indiscriminate attacks, with the attacking forces using weapons that could not be targeted with sufficient accuracy to distinguish between civilian and military objects.
The large majority of the deaths were in separatist-held territory in Donetsk, and were likely caused by Ukrainian government forces, but separatist forces appeared responsible for several deaths in Avdiivka and Debaltseve, areas under government control.
The organization’s research strongly suggests that separatist forces fired from these neighbourhoods, and Ukrainian government forces fired into them. In at least one instance, government forces placed an artillery position in a residential area.
“Both sides in this conflict have been responsible for a pattern of indiscriminate attacks on populated areas. They have killed and injured civilians, and destroyed civilian homes, and there would appear to be little impetus on both sides to end these violations,” said John Dalhuisen.
International humanitarian law – the laws of war – prohibits attacks that target civilians and civilian structures, as well as attacks in civilian areas that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Both sides in the conflict have violated the prohibition by relying on unguided mortars and rockets that cannot be aimed with any precision in highly populated civilian areas.
In addition, by basing troops, weaponry and other military targets in residential areas, Ukrainian government and separatist forces have failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, endangering civilians in violation of the laws of war.
Despite a declared cease-fire, all of the cities that Amnesty International visited are being contested by Ukrainian and separatist forces. In Donetsk, the largest city controlled by the separatists in eastern Ukraine, fighting continues over and within the international airport on the northern edge of the city, which both sides have claimed to have taken in the past. With the biggest runway in the region, the airport is strategically important.
Avdiivka, 10 km from Donetsk, is held by the pro-Kyiv forces, who are using it as a supply route to the Donetsk airport. Debaltseve, another stronghold of the pro-Kyiv forces, is a regional transport hub, strategically situated at the crossroads of the main highways and railways between Ukraine and Russia.
Below are summaries of some of the cases of civilian deaths that Amnesty International documented in the three towns.
On 15 September 2014, at 5:45 pm, the area around a popular car repair shop on Kuybisheva Street was hit by several mortar shells. It was the first attack of the day. Dmitriy Sitnikov, age 19, and two men known locally as Fil, age 31, and Sergey, age 24, were sitting in front of the shop when the attack took place: all of them were hit and died instantly. A CCTV video of the incident can be seen online.
On 18 September 2014, at about 9:45 pm, the house at 22 Rustaveli Street was hit by a shell or rocket, killing Vladimir Likov, age 64. Rustaveli Street is located in a residential area in the Kuybishevskiy District, close to Donetsk airport. Likov was killed while sitting in his kitchen watching TV.
On 28 September 2014, at around 11:30 am, a mortar killed Natalia Lysenko, age 63, near the Trudovskaya mine, located in the middle of a residential area in Donetsk’s Petrovskyi district. Because of the constant danger of shelling, around 60 people live in an old bomb shelter next to the mine; Natalia Lysenko was one of them. She was hit while returning to the bomb shelter after checking on her house nearby. “Her body was heavily bloodied,” said a local resident who introduced himself as Andrey; he had helped load her on an ambulance. Natalia Lysenko died on the way to hospital.
On 29 September 2014 the house at 16 Pugacheva Street received a direct hit from a shell, killing three people: Byla Taran, age 76; Svetlana Belykh, age 35; and Elena Kiseliova-Byila, age 52. The women, who were related, were hiding in the house because of the continuing attacks during that day. A couple – Liubov Belykh, age 22, and Aleksandr Taran, age 25 – were also severely injured. Pugacheva Street is also located in the Kuybishevskyi district, close to Donetsk airport.
Amnesty International witnessed the use of civilian areas in Donetsk as a firing position for separatist attacks against the pro-Kyiv forces based at Donetsk airport, pointing to shared separatist responsibility for the civilian deaths and injuries in Donetsk. In the Kuybishevskiy district on 27 September 2014, Amnesty International researchers saw an artillery piece that was placed on the side of a residential street less than five metres away from a house. The same type of artillery piece was later recorded on tape by separatist forces in a video where it is seen being fired, repeatedly, in the direction of the airport. In the video, the piece is placed on a narrow road which has residential houses on both sides – a different spot than where Amnesty International researchers saw it. At one point at least 13 discarded artillery shells can be seen next to it.
Amnesty International also saw a bridge on Kievskiy Prospect, which leads to Donetsk airport, being used as a military location by the separatist forces on 30 September 2014. The team saw at least one artillery piece under the bridge and heard repeated fire from it. Less than a kilometre away there is a school and residential buildings, which were damaged in the course of different attacks, leading to at least one civilian casualty.
Local residents told Amnesty International that separatists use mobile rocket launchers to fire from civilian areas; they shoot off the rockets and then quickly move the armament to another location.
An artillery shell or rocket that hit the Avdiivka Municipal Hospital at 7 pm on 3 September 2014 killed one woman and seriously injured another. Located close to the edge of town toward the Donetsk Airport, the hospital received heavy damage, with a huge hole knocked into its third floor. Taisiya Yurchenko, age 66, who was receiving treatment for a previous attack on the same day, was killed when she was hit by shrapnel.
A junior nurse who introduced herself as Vera Ivanovna, age 65, was cleaning the floors in the corridor when the attack started. She had just been called by the daughter of another patient in a wheelchair, who needed help moving her mother. As Vera Ivanovna got up, the shell or rocket hit the hospital building, and she was hit by shrapnel in several places. In all, her left thigh, right shin, stomach and left hand were injured, and the tip of her left thumb was blown off.
“I crawled to the door,” Vera Ivanovna told Amnesty International. “They took me to the operating room in the dark, and operated on me without lights. The doctors worked very fast, and I was very lucky. I still have shrapnel in my abdomen.”
Leningradskaya Street, in central Debaltseve, which is held by pro-Kyiv forces, was hit by a rocket or an artillery shell at about 8:30 pm on 3 September 2014. The attack started quite suddenly, and Maksim Poznyakov, age 27, was hit by shrapnel in front of his house. When the shelling started he rushed his wife Svetlana Kulikova inside, but they did not make it in time, and Svetlana Kulikova was hit by shrapnel in her leg.
“I heard Maksim yelling ‘Run, run!’ and then it happened,” said a neighbour who introduced himself as Vladimir Nikolaevich, and who was hit by shrapnel in his arm.
Zavodskoy Poselok, a suburb of Debaltseve, was hit by rocket fire at about 5:15 pm on 22 September 2014. A woman known to the locals as Anna Viktorovna, age 64, was hit as she was returning home, having gone out to draw some water during a break in the shelling. Her body was completely mangled when she was found at around 6 pm that day. The alleyway where she was found is known locally as the “path of death”.