Russian Forces Attack Medical Facilities Across Ukraine
By Brian Dooley
Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine: I’m with Mike Breen of Human Rights First, about ten miles from the Russian border in the northeastern villages of Tsyrkuny and Ruski Tyshky. Both places were occupied by Russian soldiers for many months after the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
And both still show the deep scars of the fighting, with houses, schools, and local council buildings damaged and destroyed.
The local medical facility in Tsyrkuny has been decimated, the roof gone, its insides burnt out, a Russian rocket still embedded in the earth a few yards from its windows. Locals tell us retreating Russian troops destroyed the building after using it as a base.
We at Human Rights First have a long history of documenting attacks on human rights defenders providing medical help in conflict zones and revolutions. Over the last a decade I’ve reported on such attacks for Human Rights First in various places, including on doctors, nurses, and others under threat in Bahrain, Hong Kong and Syria. Last year I reported on some of the dangers facing medics working in Ukraine.
The destruction of the medical facility here in Tsyrkuny is no isolated incident, and the volume of such war crimes is staggering. Local and international human rights groups have catalogued hundreds of attacks on medics and medical facilities in Ukraine over the last year.
In a report issued last month they detailed 707 attacks on the country’s health care system between the first day of the full-scale invasion on February 24, and December 31, 2022.
The report documents 292 attacks that damaged or destroyed 218 hospitals and clinics (many health facilities were attacked more than once), 65 attacks on ambulances, and 181 attacks on other health infrastructure, including pharmacies, blood centers, and dental clinics.
It also details attacks on health care workers including 62 killed and 52 injured, and notes that many others were threatened, imprisoned, taken hostage, and forced to work under Russian occupation.
It says one in ten of Ukraine’s hospitals have been directly damaged from attacks. Tsyrkuny is in Kharkivska, a region which has suffered 63 recorded attacks that damaged or destroyed hospitals, more than any other oblast.
One hospital in this oblast was hit five times, another four times. Many health facilities attacked in Ukraine were bearing “internationally recognized symbols of their status as medical centers … clearly visible from the air,” says the report. “Bashtanka Multiprofile Hospital, which was heavily damaged in an April attack, was marked with a Red Cross painted on a white canvas placed on the roof.”
According to a local doctor at that hospital, drones flew over the facility and “they saw very well, they knew that this was a medical institution. … we hoped this would somehow save us. But it turns out nothing is sacred in this war.”
The results of these attacks are felt across the country. An International Organization for Migration survey found that by early December 2022, one in every three people in Ukraine experienced a lack of medical services.
These attacks on medical facilities – either deliberate or indiscriminate – are clearly violations of international law.
The report was authored by several local and international groups including the Media Initiative for Human Rights, based in Kyiv. Olha Reshetylova is the NGO’s executive director and explained that the various groups all provided parts of a wider picture.
“We were in contact with a doctor in Mariupol hospital when it was taken over by Russian soldiers who used it as a base and held hundreds of medics and patients hostage,” she said.
“Then we were also talking to a nurse in Kherson who set up a clinic in her home to provide local medical services and were with witnesses who saw ambulances being shot on the road outside Luhansk. It was the efforts of activists from across the country and international organizations that, when combined, gave a sense of what is happening right across the country.”