November 26, 2022

Human Rights Watch urges Russia to ensure safe passage and aid for civilians in Mariupol, Ukraine

“Thirty-two civilians who managed to escape southeastern Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol last week told Human Rights Watch how they struggled to survive in below-freezing temperatures as Russian forces relentlessly attacked the city,” the human rights organization said on Sunday, adding that they described men, women, and children sheltering in basements with little to no access to running water, power, heating, medical care, or mobile phone service since the siege began on March 2, 2022.

Russian forces laying siege to Mariupol should immediately ensure that civilians in Mariupol are not being denied access to items essential for their survival such as water, food, and medicine, and should facilitate safe passage to areas under control of Ukrainian forces for civilians who choose to leave the city.

“Mariupol residents have described a freezing hellscape riddled with dead bodies and destroyed buildings,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And these are the lucky ones who were able to escape, leaving behind thousands who are cut off from the world in the besieged city.”

The current death toll in Mariupol remains unknown. An assistant to the city’s mayor, Petro Andryushchenko, told Human Rights Watch on March 20 that more than 3,000 civilians may have died since the fighting began, but he said the exact number was unclear. Local authorities have reported that at least 80 percent of the city’s residential buildings had been damaged or destroyed. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these figures, or to assess how many of those killed were civilians.

On March 16 and 17, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 Mariupol residents in person at a makeshift registration center in Zaporizhzhia, a city about 220 kilometers northwest of Mariupol. They were among several thousand Mariupol residents who fled the city on March 15 and 16 in personally arranged convoys with private cars, on journeys that took between 24 and 72 hours. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a couple in Zaporizhzhia who were waiting for their two children to arrive from Mariupol. On March 16 alone, at least 3,200 people from Mariupol made it to Zaporizhzhia, according to two local officials working at the registration center. Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with two other Mariupol residents who had managed to escape the city.

“The last two weeks were pure horror,” a school principal from Mariupol told Human Rights Watch. “We left because our city is no more.” A 32-year-old woman who fled to Zaporizhzhia with her three children said that, by the time they left, their house in Mariupol was so damaged that it looked like a strainer, covered with holes caused by the persistent attacks. A 64-year-old woman said: “I think those who are left will get killed or starve to death. We have nowhere to come back to.”

Mariupol is a coastal city between two regions currently under the effective control of Russian forces. Since around March 2, Russian forces have completely surrounded the city and blocked the port. Reports of fighting within the city center have emerged in recent days, and many of the residents who fled said they saw Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and military equipment in their neighborhoods. Andryushchenko told Human Rights Watch that, as of March 20, at least 200,000 of the city’s pre-war population of over 400,000 remain in the city.

Residents who escaped said that hospitals, schools, shops, and countless homes had been damaged or destroyed by shelling. Many said that their family members or neighbors had suffered serious and, in some cases, fatal injuries from metal fragments of explosives and that they saw dead bodies strewn on the roads when they ventured out to look for food or water or to find a signal for their mobile phones.

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The inability to communicate with relatives, friends, and the outside world was a particular challenge for people in Mariupol. Almost all cell phone towers had stopped delivering a signal by March 2, with only faint signals in specific locations after that. A graphic designer said that every day she would walk two and a half kilometers each way to a Kyivstar cellphone tower to try to get reception, ducking down to the ground every time a plane flew overhead.

Everyone interviewed noted that the lack of information caused by ruptures in telecommunication and electricity made it very difficult to figure out how to evacuate the city safely.

Those interviewed described staying in basements for days in crowded and unsanitary conditions, unable to shower and with little to eat or drink. One woman said she stayed for two weeks in a basement with at least 80 people that was about 300 square meters; a man stayed with 50 people in a basement that was 50 square meters; and another man said he stayed with 18 people in a basement that was 10 square meters.

Older people and people with disabilities described the additional challenges they faced: unable to move to their basements for shelter, they sat in their apartments with blown out windows, the walls vibrating with each attack. An 82-year-old man who stayed in his sixth-floor apartment since the attacks began, said he distracted himself by cleaning up the glass shards that littered the floors: “I was shaking as the bombs were dropping. The walls were shaking, and I was afraid the building would collapse. But I spent my days trying to clean the glass shards. I was just cleaning, I had to somehow occupy myself. It was pointless, but it was all I could do to keep busy.”

On March 9, Russian forces attacked a hospital complex in Mariupol, reportedly wounding at least 17 civilians, including medical staff and pregnant women. One pregnant woman reportedly died from her injuries after being transferred to another hospital following the attack. Human Rights Watch verified and analyzed 7 videos and 10 photographs showing the aftermath of the attack, including the destruction of the entire front wall of the children’s hospital, apparent fragmentation marks on the façade of the neighboring maternity ward, and a large impact crater from the detonation of an air-dropped munition on the southern part of the courtyard. Russia later confirmed that it had targeted the hospital, alleging that Ukrainian forces had been occupying it and that they had warned civilians inside to leave. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify these claims.

On March 16, a drama theater in Mariupol that had been sheltering at least 500 people came under attack. In satellite imagery of the theater from March 14, the Russian word for “children” is clearly visible in large Cyrillic script on the ground in front of and behind the theater. A mother and son who sheltered in the theater for two weeks said that hundreds of people were still in the theater when they left at 9 a.m. on March 16, just hours before the attack. It appears that most people sheltering in the theater managed to survive while hiding in the basement, according to local authorities. The Russian Defense Ministry denied carrying out the attack and blamed Ukrainian government-backed forces.

Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly agreed to the terms of a temporary ceasefire and creation of a humanitarian corridor on March 4 to allow civilians to evacuate from Mariupol safely. At least seven initial efforts to carry out the agreement and facilitate evacuations failed as ceasefires were broken.

According to Kirill Timoshenko, deputy head of the office of the president of Ukraine, at least 9,000 Mariupol residents had been able to flee to Zaporizhzhia using an agreed-upon humanitarian corridor over the previous few days. However, the mayor’s assistant, Andryushchenko, said that agreement only covered a corridor between the Russian-controlled city of Berdyansk, 65 kilometers southwest of Mariupol, and Zaporizhzhia. He said that the route traveling out of Mariupol to Berdyansk is still subject to ongoing heavy fighting, and that civilians have not been offered any specific guarantees with respect to a humanitarian corridor or safe passage for this stretch. 

Local authorities in Mariupol also reported on March 19 that Russian forces had taken “between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents forcibly across the border” into southwestern Russia. The Russian ministry of defense announced on March 20 that nearly 60,000 Mariupol residents were “evacuated to Russia” over the past three days, and that Mariupol residents have a “voluntary choice” regarding which corridor to take or whether to stay in the city. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these accounts. If Mariupol residents have been forcibly transferred to Russia, that could constitute a war crime. Under international humanitarian law, the transfer of a civilian, individually or en masse, is not voluntary, and is therefore prohibited, simply because the civilian agrees to it. A transfer can be forcible when a person volunteers because they fear consequences such as violence, duress, or detention if they remain, and the occupying power is taking advantage of a coercive environment to conduct the transfer.

Both Russia and Ukraine have obligations to ensure access for humanitarian assistance to civilians and to take all feasible steps to allow the civilian population to evacuate safely, if they choose, whether or not an agreement to establish humanitarian corridors is put into effect. Russia is prohibited from forcibly requiring civilians, individually or en masse, to evacuate to places in Russia or other countries such as Belarus. 

The use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas heightens concerns of unlawful, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks. These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. This includes the use of unguided and unobserved large-caliber projectiles and aviation bombs. The use of these weapons should be avoided in populated areas.

The International Criminal Court, the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry, and other relevant jurisdictions should investigate potential war crimes in Mariupol, with a view to prosecuting those most responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

“For those who were able to escape Mariupol, leaving friends and families behind, the news of recent evacuations has given them a bit of hope that those they love may make it out of the city alive,” Wille said. “Russian and Ukrainian forces should urgently do what it takes to protect civilians remaining in Mariupol, and to allow those who want to leave the besieged city to do so in safety.”

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