Russian forces killed and wounded numerous civilians in eight attacks in Chernihiv city in northeastern Ukraine in early March 2022, Human Rights Watch said Friday. Four of these attacks, from the air and ground, were in clear violation of the laws of war. They included the bombing of an apartment complex that killed 47 civilians, an attack that killed at least 17 people in a bread line outside a supermarket, and two separate attacks, including one using widely banned cluster munitions, that damaged two hospitals.
Ukrainian forces may have placed civilians at risk in five of the Russian forces’ attacks, including one where Territorial Defense Forces had established a base at a school. One of these Russian strikes hit a hospital, which has enhanced protections under the laws of war, making the strike on the facility unlawful despite the possible presence of a military checkpoint near the hospital. The four other strikes may still have violated prohibitions against indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, despite the apparent nearby presence of Ukrainian troops.
“Russian forces in March repeatedly attacked populated areas in Chernihiv from the ground and air with seeming disregard for civilian loss of life,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The failure of Ukrainian forces in some areas to remove civilians added to the casualties, but the attacker must still distinguish between civilians and combatants.”
The Russian military began attacking Chernihiv on February 24, the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Human Rights Watch investigated attacks on the city that occurred between March 3 and March 17. While Russian forces never captured Chernihiv, by late March they had effectively surrounded the city, trapping civilians and subjecting them to further bombardment. Russian forces withdrew from the area on March 31 as part of their broader retreat from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.
Between March 8 and May 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 people including 24 witnesses to the eight attacks, as well as emergency responders, Chernihiv Regional Administration officials, and local prosecutors, who provided civilian casualty figures. On April 19 and 20, researchers inspected the sites of the eight attacks.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery to corroborate the dates and scale of the damage, and to help determine the location of any Ukrainian forces in the vicinity of the attacks. Obituaries of Ukrainian soldiers published in local media also helped to assess whether Ukrainian military personnel were in the vicinity of the attacks.
The Ukrainian Department of Medical Care for the Chernihiv region said that at least 98 civilians were killed in the eight attacks and at least another 123 were wounded. The department’s head said that these numbers were based on reports from local hospitals, emergency medical services, and the official morgue logbook. The official provided Human Rights Watch with the names, ages, and genders of 22 of the people killed and 122 of the people wounded in the attacks. She said forensic experts were still compiling the personal information related to the other casualties and that she would share this with Human Rights Watch when it was complete.
In the deadliest of the eight attacks, Russian forces on March 3 dropped several unguided bombs on an apartment building complex, killing 47 civilians. “When the explosions happened, I saw people falling out of the windows,” a resident of one of the buildings said. “Some of them were on fire.” Several witnesses interviewed said they did not believe that any Ukrainian forces were in the area at the time.
In a March 17 attack on the city center, Russian forces launched an Uragan cluster munition rocket that damaged a medical complex housing two hospitals. Local officials said the attack killed 14 civilians and injured 21 others. Witnesses said they saw no military targets in the area at the time.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces have repeatedly used cluster munitions, which are inherently indiscriminate weapons, in attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and damaged homes, hospitals, and schools. Ukrainian forces appear to have used cluster munitions at least once.
Serious violations of the laws of war, including indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, committed with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for attempt to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
The Russian attacks in Chernihiv demonstrate the devastating impact on civilians and civilian infrastructure when armed forces use explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, and the increased likelihood of unlawful indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. Long-term effects of their use include damage to civilian buildings and critical infrastructure, interference with services such as health care and education, and displacement of the local population.
Of the 4,266 civilian deaths and 5,178 civilian injuries that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded in Ukraine between February 24 and June 7 – most likely a significant undercount – the majority were caused by explosive weapons with wide-area effects, including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-barrel rocket launchers, and missile and airstrikes.
Russia and Ukraine should avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said. All countries should support a strong international political declaration to better protect civilians from the use of such weapons in populated areas.
“The Russian forces’ devastating ground and airstrikes on Chernihiv show why explosive weapons should not be used in populated urban settings,” Wille said. “All governments should commit to strengthen protections for civilians from the use of explosive weapons in villages, towns. and cities.”