A United Nations report says Ukraine’s armed forces bear a large share of the blame for a deadly assault on a care home for the elderly and disabled.
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Two weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin-backed rebels assaulted a nursing home in the eastern region of Luhansk. Dozens of elderly and disabled patients, many of them bedridden, were trapped inside without water or electricity.
The March 11 assault set off a fire that spread throughout the facility, suffocating people who couldn’t move.
A small number of patients and staff escaped and fled into a nearby forest, finally getting assistance after walking for 5 kilometers.
In a war awash in atrocities, the attack on the nursing home near the village of Stara Krasnyanka stood out for its cruelty. And Ukrainian authorities placed the fault squarely on 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 southeast of Kyiv.
A few days before the attack, Ukrainian soldiers took up positions inside the nursing home, effectively making the building a target.
At least 22 of the 71 patients survived the assault, but the exact number of people killed remains unknown, according to the UN.
The report by the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights doesn’t conclude the Ukrainian soldiers or the Moscow-backed separatist fighters committed a war crime.
But it said the battle at the Stara Krasnyanka nursing home is emblematic of the human rights office’s concerns over the potential use of “human shields” to prevent military operations in certain areas.
The aftermath of the attack on the Stara Krasnyanka home also provides a window into how both Russia and Ukraine move quickly to set the narrative for how events are unfolding on the ground — even when those events may still be shrouded by the fog of war.
For Ukraine, maintaining the upper hand in the fight for hearts and minds helps to ensure the continued flow of billions of dollars in Western military and humanitarian aid.
Russia’s frequently indiscriminate shelling of apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and theaters has been the primary cause of the war’s thousands of civilian casualties.
But Ukraine also must abide by the international rules of the battlefield.
David Crane, a former US Defense Department official and a veteran of numerous international war crime investigations, said the Ukrainian forces may have violated the laws of armed conflict by not evacuating the nursing home’s residents and staff.
“The bottom-line rule is that civilians cannot intentionally be targeted. Period. For whatever reason,” Crane said.
“The Ukrainians placed those people in a situation which was a killing zone. And you can’t do that.”
The UN report examined violations of international human rights law that have occurred in Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
The Stara Krasnyanka attack totals just two paragraphs in the 38-page report. Although brief, this short section is the most detailed and independent examination of the incident that’s been made public.
At the beginning of March, according to the UN report, “when active hostilities drew nearer to the care house,” its management requested repeatedly that local authorities evacuate the residents.
But an evacuation wasn’t possible because Ukrainian forces were believed to have mined the surrounding area and blocked roads, the report said.
While the opposing sides blame each other for the Stara Krasnyanka tragedy, the grim 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 the civilians are caught in the line of fire.
“The Russians are the bad guys (in this conflict). That’s pretty clear,” Crane said. “But everybody is accountable to the law and the laws of armed conflict.”