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‘Horrific Milestone’: Russian attacks on healthcare in Ukraine top 1,000

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Picture: Evgeniy Maloletka/World Press Photo Foundation/EPA-EFE/March 9, 2022 – A 2023 World Press Photo Contest Photo of the Year winner image depicting Iryna Kalinina (32), an injured pregnant woman, is carried from a maternity hospital that was damaged during a Russian airstrike in Mariupol, Ukraine. Her baby, named Miron (after the word for ‘peace’) was stillborn, and half an hour later Iryna died as well. An OSCE report concluded the hospital was deliberately targeted by Russia, resulting in three deaths and some 17 injuries. ‘These deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine’s health system show how Russian forces use these vicious, illegal tactics to control, coerce, and punish civilians,’ said an expert at Physicians for Human Rights.

By Jessica Corbett

A global coalition on Thursday announced what it called a “horrific milestone” for Russian attacks on Ukrainian health workers, hospitals, and other medical infrastructure since the February 2022 invasion.

“For nearly 1.5 years, we have been witnessing the escalation of attacks on healthcare in Ukraine, reaching a terrifying milestone of over 1,000 incidents since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion,” said Ukrainian Healthcare Centre analyst Diana Rusnak in a statement.

“These acts are not collateral damage, but a calculated means of warfare approved by Russia’s higher political and military leadership,” Rusnak added. “The consequences are profound, causing not only immediate devastation but also impairing the capacity to provide lifesaving care for people. Unless accountability prevails, these crimes will persist unabated.”

Lyubov Smachylo, an analyst at the Media Initiative for Human Rights, similarly stressed that “Ukraine’s healthcare system is severely affected by Russia’s attacks,” including combat medics targeted on the battlefield and “held captive in Russian places of detention as prisoners of war, where they are beaten and tortured.”

“These actions are a blatant violation of international humanitarian law and are occurring regularly,” Smachylo said. “It’s important that those responsible for these crimes are held accountable to prevent future violations.”

Both of those groups — along with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Insecurity Insight, and eyeWitness to Atrocities — have tracked attacks on Ukraine’s healthcare system throughout the war and in February published a report and interactive map.

The coalition on Thursday released findings of 1,014 attacks through mid-July, including 414 that damaged or destroyed hospitals; 79 on ambulances; 57 affecting children’s hospitals; and 40 affecting maternal health facilities. Additionally, at least 148 health workers have been killed and another 106 injured.

One hospital in Donetsk Oblast has ensured repeated shelling, most recently in June. An administrative worker there told researchers that “the missile was aimed at destroying our surgical department. There were no military [troops] there.”

The hospital worker continued:

The entire infrastructure in the city was destroyed, there are no schools, no kindergartens. We had a hospital, and it had to be destroyed [by Russian forces] as well. The maternity ward was the first to be hit.

When our accounting department and the blood transfusion centre caught fire, [Russian forces] started hitting that area on purpose… [They] burned down.

Carrie Bowker, director at eyeWitness to Atrocities, said that the coalition data “urgently warrants further investigation by prosecutors, and provides strong evidence upon which to pursue accountability for these devastating attacks”.

PHR’s director of research and investigations, Christian De Vos, agreed, saying that “these deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine’s health system show how Russian forces use these vicious, illegal tactics to control, coerce, and punish civilians.”

“We call on the International Criminal Court as well as other international and domestic prosecutors to urgently prioritise the investigation of attacks on health facilities as both war crimes and crimes against humanity,” De Vos declared.

Uliana Poltavets, Ukraine emergency response coordinator at PHR, said that “Russia is also obligated to make reparations, including payment for reconstruction and rehabilitation, for its breaches of international law, and compensate the Ukrainian state and individual Ukrainians for loss of life and injury. International actors should hold Russia to account in this process.”

Insecurity Insight director Christina Wille highlighted the need for accountability and justice for similar violence around the world — with armed attacks on schools and hospitals in conflict zones up 112 percent last year, according to a June United Nations report.

“I have been analysing attacks on healthcare for many years. These figures are truly staggering,” Wille said of conditions in Ukraine.

“At this grim milestone, we should reflect on the horrific consequences of such attacks in Ukraine and in many other countries and territories around the globe, such as Myanmar, Sudan, and the occupied Palestinian territory where health facilities and workers continue to suffer dire levels of violence,” she added. “We hope that this marks an inflection point to galvanise concerted action to protect healthcare globally and bring an end to these tragic attacks.”

Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.