WASHINGTON (AP) — Two weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin-backed rebels stormed a nursing home in the eastern Luhansk region. Dozens of elderly and disabled patients, many of them bedridden, were trapped inside without water or electricity.
The March 11 assault started a fire that spread throughout the facility, suffocating people who were unable to move. A small number of patients and staff escaped and fled into a nearby forest, finally receiving help after walking 5 kilometers (3 miles).
In a war riddled with atrocities, the attack on the nursing home near the town of Stara Krasnyanka stood out for its cruelty. And Ukrainian authorities squarely blamed Russian forces, accusing them of killing more than 50 vulnerable civilians in a brutal and unprovoked attack.
But a new United Nations report has found that Ukraine’s armed forces bear a large, and perhaps equal, share of the blame for what happened in Stara Krasnyanka, which is about 580 kilometers (360 miles) southeast of Kyiv. A few days before the attack, Ukrainian soldiers took up positions inside the nursing home, making the building a target.
At least 22 of the 71 patients survived the attack, but the exact death toll is unknown, according to the UN.
The report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights does not conclude that Ukrainian soldiers or Moscow-backed separatist fighters have committed a war crime. But he said the battle at the Stara Krasnyanka nursing home was emblematic of the human rights office’s concerns about the possible use of “human shields” to prevent military operations in certain areas.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” that includes theWar Crimes Watch Ukraine Interactive Experience and an upcoming documentary.
The aftermath of the attack on Stara Krasnyanka’s home also provides a window into how both Russia and Ukraine are moving quickly to establish the narrative of how events are unfolding on the ground, even as those events may still be shrouded in fog of war. war. For Ukraine, keeping the upper hand in the fight for hearts and minds helps ensure the continued flow of billions of dollars in Western humanitarian and military aid.
Russia’s often indiscriminate bombing of apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and theaters has been the main cause of the war’s thousands of civilian casualties. Ukraine and its allies, including the United States, blamed Moscow for the deaths and injuries and called for those responsible to be brought to justice.
But Ukraine must also abide by the international rules of the battlefield. David Crane, a former US Department of Defense official and veteran of numerous international war crimes investigations, said Ukrainian forces may have violated the laws of armed conflict by failing to evacuate residents and staff from the home. of elderly.
“The fundamental rule is that civilians cannot be intentionally targeted. Period. For whatever reason,” Crane said. “The Ukrainians put those people in a situation that was a death zone. And you can’t do that.
The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline,” drawing on a variety of sources, have independently documented hundreds of attacks in Ukraine that likely amount to war crimes. The vast majority appear to have been committed by Russia. But a handful, including the destruction of the Stara Krasnyanka nursing home, indicate that Ukrainian fighters are also to blame.
Early media reports about the Stara Krasnyanka nursing home largely reflected statements issued by Ukrainian officials more than a week after the fighting ended.
Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk, stated in a March 20 post on his Telegram account that 56 people had been killed “cynically and deliberately” by “Russian occupiers” who “fired at close range from a tank.” The office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova said in a statement issued the same day that 56 elderly people had dieddue to the “treasonable actions” of the Russian forces and their allies. Neither statement mentioned whether Ukrainian soldiers had entered the house before the fighting began.
The Luhansk regional administration, which Haidai runs, did not respond to requests for comment. Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office told The AP on Friday that its Luhansk division is continuing to investigate Russia’s “indiscriminate bombing and forcible transfer of people” from the nursing home. About 50 patients died in the attack, the office said, fewer than it declared in March. The attorney general’s office did not respond directly to the UN report, but said it is also investigating whether Ukrainian troops had been in the house.
Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, which includes the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. They have declared two independent “people’s” republics, which were recognized by Russia just before the war began.
Viktoria Serdyukova, human rights commissioner for the Lugansk separatist government, said in a March 23 statement that Ukrainian troops were responsible for casualties at the nursing home. The residents had been taken hostage by Ukrainian “militants” and many of them were “burned alive” in a fire started by the Ukrainians as they retreated, she said.
The UN report examined violations of international human rights law that have occurred in Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. The attack on Stara Krasnyanka occupies just two paragraphs in the 38-page report. Although brief, this brief section is the most detailed and independent examination of the incident that has been made public.
The Stara Krasnyanka section is based on eyewitness accounts from staff who survived the attack and information provided by relatives of residents, according to a United Nations official who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is still working to fully document the case, the official said. Among the remaining questions are how many people died and who they were.
In early March, according to the UN report, “as active hostilities approached the residence,” its management repeatedly requested that local authorities evacuate the residents. But an evacuation was not possible because Ukrainian forces are believed to have mined the surrounding area and blocked roads, according to the report. The house is built on a hill and is close to a key road, which made the location strategically important.
On March 7, Ukrainian soldiers entered the nursing home, according to the UN. Two days later, they “engaged in an exchange of fire” with Moscow-backed separatists, “although it is unclear which side opened fire first,” according to the report. . No staff or residents were injured in this first exchange.
On March 11, 71 residents and 15 employees remained in the house without access to water or electricity. That morning, separatist forces in Lugansk, referred to by the UN as “Russian-affiliated armed groups,” attacked with heavy weapons, according to the report.
“A fire started and spread through the care home, as fighting continued,” according to the UN. An unspecified number of patients and staff fled the house and ran into a nearby forest and were eventually met by separatist fighters, who gave them assistance, according to the UN.
A correspondent for the state-run Russia-1 news channel gained access to the war-torn house after the battle and posted a video on his Telegram account in April accusing Ukrainian soldiers of using “helpless old men” as human shields. .
The correspondent, Nikolai Dolgachev, was escorted into the building by a man identified in the video as a Luhansk separatist soldier wearing the call sign “Wolf.” Extensive damage to the building, both inside and out, is visible in the video. A body is lying on the ground. The AP verified that the location in the video posted by Dolgachev is the nursing home by comparing it to other videos and photos of the building.
Dolgachev said that Ukrainian troops installed a “machine gun nest” and an anti-tank gun in the house. In the video, he stops amidst the rubble inside the building to rest his hand on the anti-tank weapon, which he incorrectly named Tor. The Tor is a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.
Ian Williams, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reviewed the video and said the weapon is an RK-3 Corsar, a Ukrainian-built man-portable anti-tank guided missile.
While opposing sides blame each other for the Stara Krasnyanka tragedy, the sad reality is that much of the war in Ukraine is being fought in populated areas, increasing the potential for civilian casualties. Those deaths and injuries become almost inevitable when civilians are caught in the line of fire.
“The Russians are the bad guys (in this conflict). That’s pretty clear,” Crane said. “But everyone is responsible before the law and the laws of armed conflict.”
Associated Press reporter Lynn Berry in Washington and photographer Zoya Shu in Berlin contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: The AP and Frontline are compiling information from organizations including the Center for Information Resilience, Bellingcat, the International Association for Human Rights, the Ukraine Health Center, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights to inform to War Crimes Watch Ukraine. interactive experience.
Contact the AP investigations team at [email protected].
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