As Ukrainians marks a grim anniversary, a brutal year of war and devastation, new data illuminates the particularly brutal effects of Russia’s attacks on health facilities and workers — atrocities that human rights advocates say amount to war crimes.
More than 700 attacks have targeted hospitals, healthcare facilities and personnel since the February 24, 2022, Russian invasionaccording to data verified by five organizations working in Ukraine.
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Their report, entitled Destruction and Devastation: A Year of Russia’s Assault on Ukraine’s Health Care System depicts the stark reality that healthcare professionals and patients face Ukraineas medical facilities have been repeatedly hit by missiles and attacks.
Dozens of doctors and nurses and other health workers bravely providing medical treatment have been killed and injured. Others have been threatened, imprisoned, taken hostage and forced to work under Russian occupation, the report says.
This has made Ukrainians’ access to life-saving medical care almost impossible in some regions, the report says.
The evidence documenting what in some cases appear to be targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure, health facilities and medical personnel shows that the Russian military has violated international humanitarian law. These crimes should be prosecuted both domestically and by the International Criminal Court, said Christian De Vos, director of research and investigations with Physicians for Human Rights, one of the groups that compiled and wrote the report.
“The attacks on health … they are illegal under the Geneva Conventions,” he said.
“These are war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.”
In total, there were 707 documented attacks on health facilities, clinics, ambulances and medical personnel in 2022 – a grim figure that amounts to at least two attacks on health every day in the past year, De Vos said.
“Those are shocking numbers … the scale is really quite staggering.”
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According to the data, between February 24 and December 31, 2022, there were 292 documented attacks that damaged or destroyed 218 hospitals and clinics. Many health facilities were attacked more than once.
There were also 65 documented attacks on ambulances and 181 documented attacks on other health infrastructure such as pharmacies, blood centers, dental clinics and research centers.
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A total of 86 attacks on health care workers were documented, with 62 health care workers killed and 52 injured.
One in ten of Ukraine’s hospitals have been directly damaged by attacks, with the heaviest destruction in the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as in Kherson and Kiev, the report said.
In some towns and cities, almost all health facilities were damaged in some way.
In 10 regions of the country, 48 hospitals were hit multiple times, a statistic that De Vos says points not only to the indiscriminate nature of the attacks but also to the possibility that they were deliberately targeted.
For example, Severodonetsk City Multiprofile Hospital in Luhansk was hit 10 times between March and May 2022, the report says. Another hospital in Kharkiv was hit five times.
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These attacks have had a “devastating” effect on Ukrainians’ access to healthcare, De Vos said.
“There are so many cascading effects from attacks in health beyond the physical damage done to a hospital or to a medical vehicle … fear and terror in the civilian population,” he said.
“These also make it more difficult for the civilian population to access essential medications, vaccinations, care for chronic conditions, and regular ongoing care that people need to ensure good health. So this directly affects the right to access health care.”
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Lyubov Smachylo, an analyst at the Media Initiative for Human Rights, who also worked to gather evidence for the report, says one in three Ukrainians currently lack access to medical treatment as a result of the attacks on health facilities and workers.
She described being moved to tears by the stories of doctors interviewed by researchers who relayed terrifying stories of survival.
“We want to hold Russia accountable for its crimes,” she said in an interview with Global News from Ukraine.
She pointed to evidence showing that some hospitals wore internationally recognized symbols of their status as medical centers – a red cross on a white cloth – which were clearly visible from the air. Nevertheless, these hospitals were still hit by Russian missiles, according to the report, citing first-hand witnesses.
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“They don’t care that all these things are prohibited under international humanitarian law,” Smachylo said.
The human rights organizations that collected and documented these attacks are calling on the international community to hold Russia accountable.
“Precisely because attacks on health care are so devastating and unfortunately have been so under-investigated and under-prosecuted historically, there is tremendous impunity here for attacks on health care in particular,” De Vos said.
“Prioritize these attacks for further investigation and prosecution and … build cases that can ultimately lead to accountability for these violations.”
World Health Organization has similarly documented more than 750 attacks and 101 deaths, and Ukraine’s health minister recently said more than 1,200 facilities have been damaged either directly or indirectly, with 173 hospitals beyond repair.
— with files from The Associated Press
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