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Ukraine Conflict: Bombing, shelling in populated areas cause incredible suffering for civilians

Main cities like Kharkiv and the capital, Kyiv, have been subjected to heavy bombing.

Since February 24, 2022, and the beginning of a large-scale military conflict in Ukraine, cities across the country have been the target of devastating weapons strikes.

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 infrastructures 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.

A recurring pattern of harm

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.
  • 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 a military infrastructure is targeted, an explosive weapon in a populated area is very likely to damage civilians and civilian infrastructures surrounding it.

“There is no such thing as a ‘surgical strike.’ We know that the imprecision or the power of the explosion causes inevitable damage to civilians," says Jeff Meer, U.S. Executive Director of Humanity & Inclusion. "A strike aimed at a military target, like an airport for example, can hit a residential area located almost 1,000 feet away.”

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 combat, 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.

“Consequences of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are tragically predictable," Meer adds. "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, power plants, and clean water supply are destroyed. Explosive remnants are left behind, and can threaten the population for decades. There is only one solution: To stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

The use of forbidden weapons

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.

The ongoing humanitarian situation

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.

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," notes Humanity & Inclusion's Emergency Director, Fanny Mraz. "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 ‘nongovernment controlled areas’) isolated and with limited to no access to basic services. The Covid-19 restrictions have worsened the situation.”

Emergency mission in preparation

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

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.

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 organizations, among others, will be the main sectors explored by Humanity & Inclusion.

“Almost 400,000 people have already taken refuge in countries neighboring Ukraine and thousands of others are displaced within Ukraine," Meer notes. "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. 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 deliver psychological support to ease the shock caused by violence and displacement. The displaced population is mainly comprised of families with children.”

About Humanity & Inclusion

Humanity & Inclusion is an independent international aid organization, working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster for 40 years. Working alongside people with disabilities and people living in situations of extreme vulnerability, our action and testimony focus on responding to their essential needs, improving their living conditions, and promoting respect for their dignity and basic rights.

Humanity & Inclusion has set up development programs in more than 60 countries and intervenes in numerous emergency situations. The network of eight national associations (Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States) mobilizes resources, jointly manages projects, and increases the impact of the organization’s principles and actions. The organization has numerous prizes to its name, including the 2011 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the 1996 Nansen Prize, and two 2020 European Union Horizon Prizes for innovation. Humanity & Inclusion acts and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.