Ukraine: Debaltseve’s residents reaching breaking point

Residents of the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve are reaching breaking point, with thousands desperately sheltering from heavy shelling and lacking running water, food, electricity and basic medical supplies, Amnesty International said.

“The situation in Debaltseve is catastrophic,” said Joanne Mariner, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who just returned from the town and is now in Slovyansk.

“I have spoken to many elderly people who are confined to their basements, living in extremely dire, overcrowded conditions, in absolute fear. Many told me how they felt completely lost, not knowing what to do. Shelling is constant. These people are at the mercy of forces they have absolutely no control over.”

“Both sides of the conflict have the responsibility to stay clear of civilian areas and ensure people can evacuate the town safely. The international community, and this includes Russia, must be much more vocal in condemning violations of the laws of war by both sides.”

Debaltseve is a strategic railway junction and the Ukrainian forces’ stronghold. It has been under constant shelling by the pro-Russian separatists attempting to take control in recent days. Amnesty International’s research on the ground indicates that some of these attacks may have been indiscriminate.

The population of 25,000 has dwindled to about 7,000. Ukrainian forces claim to have evacuated more than 2,000 people since 28 January.

The only road out of town is being shelled constantly and this makes the escape of the remaining civilians even more dangerous.

"The Ukrainian government must take all feasible measures to protect the civilian population from all affected towns and villages, including by assisting with the evacuation  of those who wish to flee and transporting them to safer areas. The pro-Russian separatists must allow civilians to leave and must cease all indiscriminate shelling," said Joanne Mariner.

According to UN estimates, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 5,100 lives and displaced more than 900,000 people since it began in April 2014. The current fighting represents the worst upswing in violence since a tenuous ceasefire was signed five months ago.