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Ukraine: Horror of civilian bloodshed in indiscriminate attacks

An Amnesty International researcher on the ground in eastern Ukraine has gathered gruesome evidence of civilian deaths and casualties inflicted by both sides in the bloody conflict in the towns of Donestk and Debaltseve over the last few days.

The evidence was collected on the spot in the immediate aftermath of shelling and includes interviews with eyewitnesses and casualties in hospital.

The reported violations include an attack on a humanitarian aid line, a market place in Donestk and indiscriminate shelling of homes and streets in Debaltseve.

“This evidence reveals the horror of the bloodshed suffered by civilians, who are being killed and injured because both sides are firing unguided rockets and mortars in heavily populated areas. Such attacks are a violation of international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International.

The recent serious upsurge in fighting in several areas of eastern Ukraine, including in rebel-held Donetsk and government-held Debaltseve, has inflicted a high cost on the civilian population. More than 25 civilians have been killed in eastern Ukraine since Thursday.

Atrocities committed in Donetsk

Six people died on 30 January in Donetsk when a mortar hit people waiting in line for humanitarian aid. Five of them died on the spot, one died later in hospital and many more were injured.

A witness told Amnesty International that the explosion came without warning. An estimated two hundred people had assembled at a distribution point to receive food aid. In the explosion some victims lost body parts, and pieces of human flesh were thrown high into the air and ended up hanging on a lighting fixture some 15 meters away.

An Amnesty International researcher visited the site of the attack and interviewed two civilians who were seriously injured.

Valentina Tsygankova, an 82-year-old widow, was badly wounded in the explosion. She was slammed to the ground and was hit by shrapnel in the back and the right hand. A widow with a very small pension, she had taken a break from her job as a street cleaner to collect some much-needed food aid.

Sergei Maydan, age 42, lost a lot of blood from the injuries he sustained in the attack. Shrapnel hit him in the face, knocking out about half of his teeth, and in his left arm. “Luckily I had stepped out of line, otherwise I would be dead,” he told Amnesty International.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring team, which visited the site shortly after the attack, indicated the explosion was most likely caused by a 122mm artillery grenade, fired from a north-westerly direction - in other words, from the direction of Ukrainian government forces.

Two people were killed and seven were injured at about 8:45 am on 29 January in another incident that Amnesty International investigated, at the Aquilon Market in Donetsk’s Kuibyshevskiy district. Sergei Fiodorov, age 38, who was badly injured in the attack, said that there were two explosions.

He told Amnesty International: “After the first explosion, which happened down the street from me, I heard people shouting, ‘injured!’ I ran to help, and was caught by the second explosion. I was knocked to the ground, and could feel my cheek bleeding.” Fiodorov was injured in his face, left hand, and left thigh.

Amnesty International also spoke to two elderly women, aged 64 and 77, who were badly injured when their homes were hit by explosive weapons on 30 January. The women, who lived in Kuibyshevskiy and Leninskiy districts, respectively, were both at home in the evening when the attacks took place.

“A fireball flew through the window,” the 77-year-old woman said. “My right arm was broken and my hand was smashed.” An Amnesty International researcher visited the house the next day, finding that her neighbours had covered all of the broken windows with plywood.

Civilians trapped under artillery fire in Debaltseve

Thousands of civilians are trapped in Debaltseve, a strategic railway junction and the Ukrainian forces’ stronghold, under constant shelling by the pro-Russian separatists attempting to take control. This town has seen some of the heaviest shelling in the last two weeks.

The population of 25,000 has dwindled to about 7,000, sources told Amnesty International on the ground. Ukrainian forces claim to have evacuated more than 2,000 people since 28 January and 269 people on 1 February. While they were evacuating a group of 26 people, eight of them were wounded, including five civilians and two rescue workers.

The only road out of town is being shelled constantly and this makes the escape of the remaining citizens even more dangerous. One of the two bridges was deliberately blown up, reportedly by separatist infiltrators, and a precarious temporary bridge is slowing people down, exposing people to more danger.

“Everyone who will be attempting to leave the pocket [Debaltseve] after the next 2-3 hours will come under the crossfire of our artillery,” said separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko in an interview to Russian state television from Vuhlehirsk, a nearby town taken last week by the pro-Russian separatists from the Ukrainian forces.

According to the regional police chief, 12 civilians were killed on 31 January in indiscriminate rocket attacks in Debaltseve and seven more suffered fatal injuries in different accidents from artillery fire on 1 February.

These incidents repeat a pattern seen in Debaltseve by Amnesty International in September 2014, when people were killed in their own homes by random rocket attacks or hit on the street while out to gather water or food supplies.

Dozens of people remain trapped in the town’s railway station that has an underground shelter, but they have had no access to running water or electricity for the last two weeks.

Dire humanitarian situation and prospects for peace

The violence is exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in the region. Many residents of targeted areas sleep at night in their basements or crowded, ad hoc underground shelters, seeking a modicum of protection from the relentless shelling and rocket attacks. Some lack basic services such as running water and there is not enough food or medical supplies.

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.

Meanwhile, an attempt to reopen peace talks in neighbouring Belarus appears to have fallen apart, with top separatist leaders failing to attend, and both sides’ negotiators trading accusations.

“The lack of basic efforts to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine is shocking. Both sides of the conflict must urgently stop firing from and indiscriminately shelling civilian areas and the international community should increase the pressure upon them to do so,” said John Dalhuisen.