Human rights

Ukraine: Civilians in besieged Chernihiv need access to essentials

Civilians in the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine have had limited access to running water, electricity or heating since early March 2022, when Russian forces stepped up their assault on the city, said Human Rights Watch today.

Since at least March 24, Russian forces have effectively besieged the city, controlling almost all accesses to the city and attacking the bridge which was the last remaining access route in and out of the city to territory controlled by Ukraine. This prevented the evacuation of the injured, including children, and the use of the road for the transport and distribution of humanitarian goods, including essential medical supplies, to the civilian population.

“Civilians in Chernihiv have been trapped for days in a cascading crisis with no access to basic services and no means of escape, while living under constant threat of Russian attacks,” said Richard Weir. , crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. . “Russian and Ukrainian forces must take the necessary steps to allow civilians who wish to do so to leave the city safely and to ensure that basic needs are met for civilians who remain.”

Conditions in Chernihiv resemble those in the southeast port city of Mariupol, where the situation deteriorated significantly as residents sheltered in basements with little or no access to running water, electricity, heat, medical care or cell phone service as the Russian forces moved in. city ​​headquarters.

On March 29, a Russian deputy defense minister said that Russia would “reduce military activity” near the capital Kyiv and Chernihiv. However, as of March 30, there does not appear to have been a significant reduction in military activity in and around the two towns. Military activity by any party must not arbitrarily impede the delivery of urgent humanitarian assistance to residents or the safe evacuation of civilians who choose to leave.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a town official, a Chernihiv doctor, and a resident who recently fled the town. They described a deteriorating situation, in which access to water, electricity, heating, telephone and internet communications has almost completely disappeared in most parts of the city over the past few days. . Severe water shortages pose a particularly serious risk to the approximately 130,000 residents who remain in the city, out of a pre-war population of almost 300,000. The lack of electricity also severely limits access to health care. The extent of civilian casualties and damage to city infrastructure cannot be assessed due to continued hostilities and limited communications.

Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, estimates that more than 350 civilians were killed in the attacks on the town. “But these are very approximate numbers,” he told Human Rights Watch on March 30. “There are still a lot of people under the destroyed houses. People are often forced to bury their neighbors and relatives in the yard of their house. We cannot even count the exact number of victims. In addition, there are injured people who come to the hospitals every day… Some will not survive the injuries and many of them will remain disabled for life. Some have lost a leg, an eye or an arm.

Russian military attacks on Chernihiv began on February 24, the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Human Rights Watch previously documented a Russian airstrike on a residential area of ​​the city on March 3 that damaged several buildings, including a hospital, killing and injuring dozens of civilians, according to witnesses and doctors with whom Human Rights Watch spoke. is maintained as well as local officials. Since then, attacks on Chernihiv have intensified as Russian forces moved to encircle the city.

On the evening of March 23, the main bridge over the Desna River on the road leading from Chernihiv south to Kyiv was destroyed. This effectively cut off vehicular traffic to and from areas under Ukrainian control, as Russian forces control other major roads in and out of the city. On March 26, several Ukrainian and international journalists covering from the destroyed bridge said the area had come under heavy shelling during their stay, injuring one of them.

“This bridge allowed us to receive humanitarian aid and evacuate injured and peaceful civilians – women and children,” Lomako said. “Now there’s only [a] footbridge on the left. And [when] someone dares to cross it, the Russians bombard the bridge. Human Rights Watch has no information on specific efforts to provide impartial humanitarian assistance through Russian-controlled access routes and whether Russian forces have denied access.

Lomako said the biggest problem for residents remaining in Chernihiv is the lack of water supply. They had to use generators to pump water from the wells, he said, but there is not enough water to provide everyone with water, and some have had to rely on l water in rivers and lakes, or on melting snow.

Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv, told a press briefing on March 26 that the city had been “ripped to smithereens” and that the authorities were trying to evacuate by “any means” 44 seriously injured people. , soldiers and civilians, including three children.

A doctor with whom Human Rights Watch spoke on March 26 said that his Chernihiv hospital only had electricity through its generators and that the generators were running out of fuel. In the current situation, the generators must be switched on for four hours a day. “We use this time to cook formula for the babies,” he said. Surgery requires a lot of fuel for generators, he said, and generators don’t provide enough power for hospital staff to properly run medical equipment like their advanced X-ray machine, which helps them assess the wounds. Water shortages have also created problems. “Since we don’t have electricity or water, we can’t sterilize our medical tools, so we had to use disposable kits,” he said.

Ensuring access to electricity and clean water will be crucial to help prevent the spread of waterborne communicable diseases through the ingestion of contaminated water, Human Rights Watch said. Severe dehydration can lead to hypothermia, leg cramps, delirium, loss of blood pressure, organ failure, and death. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are more prone to the effects of dehydration.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits attacks directed against civilians and civilian objects, as well as attacks that cause anticipated harm to civilians disproportionate to the anticipated military benefits. The laws of war do not prohibit sieges by land and blockades by sea of ​​enemy forces, but sieges cannot include tactics that deny civilians access to items essential to their survival such as water , food and medicine. Parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid passage of impartial humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need and not interfere arbitrarily.

In addition, all parties to an armed conflict must protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including those necessary for the distribution of water and sanitation. Starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited.

Under international human rights law, States must respect the right to water, which includes refraining from limiting access to water services and infrastructure or destroying them as a measure punishment during armed conflicts, as well as to respect the obligations to protect objects indispensable to the survival of civilian populations. population listed above. The parties to the conflict must urgently ensure that the civilian population of Chernihiv and other areas affected by the hostilities have access to water and electricity without discrimination or unlawful restrictions.

“Civilians trapped in Chernihiv feel the echoes of the horrors experienced by those in Mariupol in recent weeks,” Weir said. “Civilians should not have to or be allowed to suffer like this. The parties to the conflict must respect their international responsibilities and protect all those who remain in Chernihiv.