Chronicles of the siege of Donetsk: who fires on the city?


The war in the east of Ukraine is perhaps at its end. Separatists of Novorossija are losing ground every day, while the regular army embrace around the city of Donetsk tightens more and more. Heavy shelling hits the city, killing those who could not escape, and once again, the warring parties are blaming each other. However, who fires on Donetsk?

The last time I was in Donetsk I had a small lunch in a café in the Green Plaza Mall, on the very central ulitsa Artema. A little farther on, in Lenin Square, thousands of people waved flags and shouted slogans for the independence of Donetskaja Respublika from Kiev.

On Friday, some Grad rockets – have hit the Green Plaza and some houses nearby, killing three people. It was perhaps the first time that the heavy artillery has hit the center, but in the past weeks bombs are whistling over the city every day. More than 80 people have died over the last few days. “Shells hit the city center more and more often,” told me on the phone a friend of mine who could not leave the city. And when I asked if I could do something for her from Dnepropetrovsk, where I was, she answered “Pray.”

Of the one million people who lived in Donetsk until prior the war, almost 400 thousand have fled. Who could not – maybe because it has nowhere to go, maybe because despite everything there is his source of livelihood – live every day fearing that a Grad missile can hit their flat.

But who is firing?

The authorities in Kiev and the head of the Anti-terrorist Operation (ATO) have no doubt: separatists who shoot on the eastern cities under their control to blame the regular army. It is an conspiracy explanation that in other cases turned out to be patently false, as for example during the aerial bombardment of Lugansk on June 2. The pro-Russian leaders instead accuse Kiev’s forces of using heavy artillery on the city.

What we know

In a report released in the aftermath of the first wave of bombing of Donetsk around the middle of July, the international NGO Human Rights Watch had pointed the finger at the regular army. “Although Ukrainian government officials and the press service of the National Guard have denied using Grad rockets in Donetsk, investigation on the ground strongly indicates that Ukrainian government forces were responsible for the attacks”, reads the report. Since then and in recent days the attacks have intensified.

“We don’t have Grad rocket launchers,” told me a Ukrainian military from battalion Azov in his hospital bed in Dnipropetrovsk. Nevertheless, his statement is contradicted by plenty of witnessing by foreign journalists and a large amount of video available on the net. “The president Petro Porošenko has promised that he will not use the same methods of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk,” he said long ago the mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukiančenko, referring to the use of heavy artillery. Yet, according to the report of HRW, “the angle and shape of the craters, and the fact that they were on the side of buildings facing the front line, strongly suggests that the rockets came from the direction of Ukrainian government forces or pro-Kiev armed groups”.

I would add: the fact that the launch of Grad have so far anticipated the ATO advance in the occupied territories, and that they are intensifying now that the battle is becoming fierce around Donetsk, makes it extremely plausible that they are part of Kiev’s military strategy.


They started the fire

Separatists too have Grad rocket launchers, and they use them. The fact that militiamen are entrenched in densely populated urban areas makes it obvious that their hardware is positioned near the buildings. “The rebels fire their missiles and then go somewhere else. After a while comes the reply of the Ukrainians. The rebels are gone, but the people who live there is still there,” an eyewitness told the New York Times.

Beyond reciprocal charges, it is important to try to know who would bear the responsibility of civilian casualties and the destruction of Donetsk. It is clear that, if the separatist forces are targeting civilians just to blame on Kiev, they are committing a war crime that needs to be punished. But if, as suggested by a series of clues, the regular army is scarifying lives of civilian to defy the enemy, the blame that falls on ATO and the government of Kiev is not only a war crime, but something more. It is a crime against its own people.

“Why did you shoot on houses? Don’t you realize that here there are little babies as well?”, shouted a resident of a just freed suburb at a Ukrainian official, while filmed by Vice News. “Who did start the fire? Certainly not us. So, who you should blame?“, was the answer.

The fact that the separatists have brought their rocket launchers and artillery between the houses of Donetsk certainly makes them war criminals. But the crimes of one side do not justify those of the other.

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