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Ukraine: Civilians at risk from bombing and limited humanitarian access

Press Release | London, 1st March 2022, 16:00 GMT

Since 24 February 2022 and the beginning of a large-scale military conflict in Ukraine, cities across the country have been the target of devastating weapons strikes. Main cities like Kharkiv and the capital, Kyiv, have been subjected to heavy bombing. According to early reports, 100 civilians have been killed and 300 injured. Bombing and shelling in populated areas cause harm to civilians in a tragically predictable way, which has been systematically observed across conflicts.

Humanity & Inclusion calls for an immediate end to the hostilities, and for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure from the effects of war. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas must stop. Civilians in Ukraine must have access to humanitarian aid, and their movements must be protected when they flee the conflict.

“Consequences of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are tragically predictable. Most of the people killed or injured are civilians. Widespread bombing causes complex injuries and psychological trauma. Populations are displaced and vital infrastructure like schools, hospitals, bridges, electricity supply, and clean water supply are destroyed. Contamination by explosive remnants is left behind, and can threaten the population for decades. There is only one solution: To stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” explains George Graham, Chief Executive of Humanity & Inclusion UK.

Recurring pattern of harm to civilians

Recent conflicts marked by massive use of explosive weapons in populated areas – like in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq – but also in East Ukraine in 2014-2017 and in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 – show a recurring pattern of harm to civilians. 

When used in populated areas, 90% of the people injured and killed by explosive weapons are civilians. 400 civilians have already been killed or injured, mainly by explosive weapons in populated areas including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and air strikes, according to the United Nations.  Reports in Kyiv and other cities, such as Kharkiv, show families bunkering down in subways and basements to protect themselves from bombing and shelling. 

“So-called ‘surgical strikes’ are often much less precise than people imagine and the power of the explosion often means they inevitably cause damage to civilians. A strike aimed at a military target, such as an airport for example, can hit a residential area located 300 metres away.” says George Graham.

During war between 2014 and 2021 in East Ukraine, more than 14,000 people were killed, including nearly 3,400 civilians. Civilians accounted for 89% of explosive weapons casualties according to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-PAX.

Injuries caused by explosive weapons are complex, difficult to heal, may cause life-long pain or discomfort, and often lead to permanent disabilities. The psychological trauma due to bombing can also affect an entire population.

Bombing and shelling in populated areas damage and destroy civilian infrastructure, including vital services like hospitals, water supply, and schools. Even when military infrastructure is targeted, an explosive weapon in a populated area is very likely to damage civilians and civilian infrastructure surrounding it.

Bombing and shelling in populated areas also cause massive displacement of populations. So far, the United Nations reports that 400,000 people have fled Ukraine to protect themselves from fighting, bombing and shelling. 

Bombing and shelling result in massive contamination by explosive remnants of war, which pose a threat to civilians both during and after hostilities and prevents the safe return of refugees and displaced persons. 

Reports also mention the use of illegal weapons. According to Amnesty International, a preschool in the town of Okhtyrka in Sumy Oblast, North-Eastern Ukraine, was hit on February 25 by cluster munitions – weapons banned by the Oslo Treaty since 2008. Civilians had taken shelter inside the school, but the attack killed three people, including a child. Another child was wounded. The attack appears to have been carried out by Russian forces, which were operating nearby.

Ukraine is already heavily contaminated by landmines, especially in East Ukraine where the former front was located since 2014, contributing to the forced displacement of between 1.3 and 1.6 million people. Anti-personnel landmines have been banned by the Ottawa Treaty since 1997.

Humanitarian access a major concern

Almost 8 million people are affected by the conflict and 400,000 people have fled the country since the start of a full-scale war in Ukraine last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Sunday. The U.N. estimates that the displacement could grow to as many as 5 million people. The U.N.’s refugee agency said half of those fleeing have entered or are en route to Poland, while other displaced civilians left for Hungary, Moldova and Romania. 

“Almost 400,000 people have already taken refuge in countries neighbouring Ukraine and thousands of others are displaced within Ukraine. In such a situation, when a large part of the population flees an armed conflict, the main humanitarian needs are foreseeable. People need shelter; they need to have access to food and clean water, etc. We also have to ensure that injured people, people with disabilities and vulnerable people like the elderly, receive the rehabilitation care they need. We must provide them psychological support to ease the shock caused by violence and displacement. The majority of the displaced population are families with children.” says George Graham.

In an emergency situation, people with disabilities or older persons often face great difficulties to meet basic needs, seek shelter, and flee conflict zones to protect themselves from violence. They are also facing obstacles accessing humanitarian aid.

“Humanitarian access will be a major concern: In 2021, humanitarian assistance was blocked for the most severely affected areas in the Donbass region, leaving the populations of Donetsk and Luhansk (specifically those in the ‘non-government-controlled areas’) isolated and with limited to no access to basic services. The COVID-19 restrictions have worsened the situation.” says George Graham.

Humanity & Inclusion deploys emergency experts

Humanity & Inclusion is preparing to deploy an exploratory mission in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries including Romania, Poland, and Moldova. It will consist of two teams focusing on assessing the humanitarian needs, security, access and operational context, response possibilities and identification of partners.

Humanity & Inclusion will focus on the most vulnerable affected populations, including displaced families, refugees, women, children, people with disabilities, and elderly people - noting the very high percentage of people over the age of 60, and with chronic diseases in Ukraine. 

The main sectors explored by Humanity & Inclusion will be: Needs for rehabilitation, psychosocial support, shelter assistance, access to food supply and water and sanitation, the inclusion of people with disabilities in humanitarian aid, and logistic support for humanitarian organisations.  
- Interview available upon request with Humanity & Inclusion's experts

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