war crimes in Ukraine

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Report on a human rights mission to Mariupol and Volnovakha

Lyudmila Klochko, Vissarian Asseyev
Report on another monitoring visit by KHPG, together with German and Russian colleagues, to Mariupol and Volnovakha at the end of December 2014

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group [KHPG], together with the German NGO ‘European Exchange’ and representatives of NGOs from the Russian Federation and Germany with the support of the German Foreign Ministry, carried out an international mission to monitor human rights in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts on territory which is back under Ukrainian control.

The mission from 23 to 26 December involved a visit to the cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha in the Donetsk oblast.


Vissarion Aseyev, RF, Kyiv

Tim Bosche, Berlin, Germany

Vladimir Hlushchenko, KHPG, Kharkiv, Ukraine

Yury Hukov, KHPG, Kharkiv, Ukraine

Lyudmila Klochko, KHPG, Kharkiv, Ukraine

Yana Pylayeva, KHPG, Ukraine

The monitoring group express their gratitude to all staff of bodies of local self-government; journalists; members of NGOs and political parties; fighters and the command of battalions of the territorial defence and armed forces of Ukraine; residents of the above-mentioned cities who agreed to share their observations, impressions and information with us.


There were pro-Russian demonstrations from 23 February, then on 7 April separatists seized the city administration building. From 16 April the city council building was totally under the control of militants – a pass system was introduced; a ban imposed on photographing and videoing; and lists of ‘fascists’ were hung up. There was a serious confrontation in the city on 9 May between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian enforcement officers during the course of which a fire began in the building of the city police department. During an operation by the Ukrainian armed forces on 13 – 14 June Mariupol was liberated.

At the time of the visit there were two seriously damaged administrative buildings in the centre of Mariupol: the city council and city police department buildings. These were not damaged through the military action, but in the Spring, during the seizure by separatists. There is damage on the outskirts of Mariupol from shelling of the city’s suburbs in the autumn, in September – October: in the Talakovki district private homes and gas pipes are damaged. On the day of the monitoring group’s visit, a railway bridge across the river had been blown up in a terrorist attack. The explosion resulted in the bridge being unusable and railway connections with the port and metal works.

In the city police department building restoration work is underway. The city council building is not being restored. Local residents speak without great certainty about having heard that the city council building cannot be repaired. The gas pipe in Talakovka is repaired. At the place where the bridge was blown up work on restoring train communications is underway.  Metinvest, a metallurgic enterprise which must have railway communications, has promised help in restoring the connection.

At the time of our visit, Volnovakha, the district centre and an important railway station between Donetsk and Mariupol had not sustained damages.

Mutual relations between the Ukrainian military and the local population

We were not able to meet with the Mayor of Mariupol, however his deputies assured us that no serious incidents had been noted. In the Mariupol defence headquarters (an NGO) they could also not recall any significant misunderstandings linked with the Ukrainian military after liberation. Our observations are as follows.  During the evening of 23 December we did not meet one armed patrol in the centre. The residents, shrugging their shoulders, said that they meet solders but rarely, and that it is the local police who carry out patrols. We were told in the defence headquarters that local activists have also joined in patrolling the city. However by 25 December the city was patrolled by Ukrainian forces.

Denis Havrilov, deputy head of the Mariupol Defence Headquarters is convinced that the overwhelming majority of Mariupol residents do not want the return of the DPR [the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ – translator] and support the Ukrainian armed forces.  In the city a volunteer movement in support of the army and help for internally displaced persons has developed.

In Volnovakha on the day of our visit, the Deputy May Igor Ismikhanov informed us that a meeting was due between the armed forces management and military prosecutor’s office and local businesspeople. In the previous report we noted that civilians are concerned when they see Ukrainian soldiers buying alcohol. At the time of our visit to Mariupol and Volnovakha a directive from the head of the Donetsk regional state administration banning the sale of alcohol to people in uniform had been circulated. Businesspeople and shop owners were worried that it would be hard for vendors to refuse soldiers carrying arms. Mr Ismikhanov reported that there are complaints from the public, but that they normally concern minor conflicts which are swiftly resolved. There have not been any serious incidents. At the same time residents of Volnovakha with whom we were able to speak on the street recalled being seriously concerned at the beginning of September when the Ukrainian military left the city – they were frightened that DPR militants would appear.

Investigation into crimes

From 23 February to 14 June 2015 there were clashes in Mariupol between ‘Maidan activists’ and ‘Anti-Maidan activists’, as well as between separatists on the one hand and Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Ukrainian residents on the other. The clashes resulted in deaths and injuries (on 16 April during the storming of a military unit; on 9 May during the storming of the police and city council.) Varying reports put the number dead at between 10 and 23. The Mariupol Defence Headquarters have no information about the course of investigation into these events, and there have been no official reports.

Humanitarian situation

At the time of our visit the humanitarian situation in Mariupol did not arouse concern: all infrastructure, shops, markets, banks, banks, bankomats, schools, pre-school and medical establishments were working. Pensions and public sector salaries are paid without any delays. Large enterprises and the sea port are working.

In Volnovakha shops, markets, bankomats, schools and kindergartens are also working, and social benefits are being paid. However the situation in Volnovakha is complicated by the fact that the railway station and carriage repair factory cannot work at full strength due to the military action – rail communications with Donetsk are suspended. Railway workers are therefore working a three-day week. Igor Ismikhanov, the Deputy Mayor of Volnovakha pointed out that there is a shortage of medicines and explained it as being because transport firms don’t want to deliver freight to a zone close to military actions.  The same situation applies with respect to delivery of spare parts for the water supply plant. However in the pharmacies we were told that it is possible to buy all necessary medication. When we related the Deputy Mayor’s words, they answered that the city had not allocated pharmacies the money for insulin and they are therefore not prepared to hand out more medication on credit until previous debts have been paid.

In both Mariupol and Volnovakha there are shortages of cash in bankomats and so queues form outside these from early morning. Most shops and pharmacies have terminals set up for credit cards. Local residents see the queues at bankomats as due to pensioners coming from territory not under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. Volnovakha is the closest point to the border with territory under the control of militants and the problems therefore appear greater.

With respect to the Volnovakha district, according to the deputy head of the district administration Vitaly Mavroda, the main difficulties in 2014 arose because adjoining territory was joined to them from the local councils of the Telmanovsk and Novoyazovsk districts which had ended up either on territory not under the control of the Ukrainian authorities, or directly in the zone of military action.  Our visit was at the end of the year and therefore there is hope that in 2015 the budget for the Volnovakha district will be adopted with consideration taken for the changes to its administrative borders.

There were difficulties with social payments, staffing of the district administration, and ensuring insulin requirements. There are 62 inhabited areas in the district and around 40 thousand people from benefit categories. Supplementary supplies of medicines were not allocated in 2014 so the shortages were covered through volunteers and charitable aid. For example, MP Oleh Lyashko provided additional insulin. In the summer of 2014 there was no cold water in the district maternity home. Ambulances cannot always get to inhabited areas in the region of military actions.  However overall they cope with the situation.

Temporarily displaced persons

There are a large number of people in Mariupol, Volnovakha and adjacent areas who have come from territory not under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. It should be noted that registration of internally displaced persons [IDP] takes place on the day that a person presents their set of documents. There are no queues for vouchers for next year either. We would note also the good level of organization of the work of the social services. Deputy Mayor Tetyana Lomakina reported that the city council passed a decision to add staff to the social services using city funding.

In Volnovakha the situation is a little more difficult because of the large number of ‘pension tourists’ – people permanently living on territory not under Ukrainian control, but registered in Volnovakha so that they can receive social payments due. We did indeed meet people who had received money from a bankomat who were hurrying for the bus to Donetsk. The Volnovakha housing fund is fairly limited. There is an old hostel, but no money for the repairs that were needed in order to be able to use the building.

In Mariupol, as Ms Lomyakina explained, at the time of our visit there were around 20 thousand IDP.  There is a place in the city for accommodating IDP together, however it is a non- residential building which was renovated and additionally equipped by the city. The difficulty is that the building is under the control of the Ministry of Infrastructure which is preventing it being swiftly being transferred to municipal ownership.

All social service staff are concerned that they cannot register all IDP since Cabinet of Ministers Instruction No. 1085 from 7.11.2014 contains a List of inhabited areas which does not fully match the actual situation. The List, for example, contains the Novoyazovsk district, but not Novoyazovsk itself.  The letter from the Ministry of Social Policy which recommends using not only the List, but also registering as IDP people having come from adjacent inhabited areas is of problematical correctness. For that reason social service personnel are justifiably worried that checks as to whether allocations of payments to people “from adjacent” places could result in serious difficulties for social workers.

In Mariupol there is a city council commission on providing assistance to residents of Talakovka, Sartana, and towns subjected to shelling by militants. Money has been allocated from the city budget for the help of IDP, and premises set up for their accommodation.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is helping and paid for winter clothing for the children of IDP. The International Red Cross has provided 3, 5 thousand food vouchers, each worth 200 UAH. “Medicins sans Frontiers” have provided medicine. We have probably not named all those who have provided assistance. However it is mainly residents of Mariupol who have helped and are continuing to help those displaced. Tetyana Lomakina as well as the Defence Headquarters report a very strong volunteer movement in Mariupol.


While understanding the need to restrict freedom of movement in the ATO zone, based on the law on fighting terrorism, the mssion notes that the restriction of freedom of movement adopted on territory under the control of the Ukrainian government could endanger the right to life of the civilian population since checkpoints at which there is a pass system into and out of the city, and those serving as defence from invasion are  mainly in the city part of Mariupol, in some places directly around residential buildings.  At these checkpoints, like at many of those through which the Mission’s route from Kharkiv to Mariupol and back passed, there are armed men without insignia who demand that vehicles stop and without identifying themselves, check the vehicle and the documents of people in them. These armed men cannot be identified as belonging to this or that division, and at the checkpoints there is no information as to where or to whom civilians should turn if their rights are infringed on the territory of the checkpoints. Such a situation can lead to violence with impunity against the civilian population committed by unidentifiable armed people, with this contributing to violations of the right to life.

During all the time that the Mission was in the Mariupol area, only at one checkpoint were all armed men wearing insignia (labels on their sleeve) with the person checking documents identifying himself and explaining which unit the group belonged to. This was Lieutenant Polivoda from the ‘Poltava’ National Guard division.

At the checkpoint on Sovetskaya St in the village of Vinogradne, on the outskirts of Mariupol where a pass system is underway in the direction of Novoyazovsk, the members of the Mission had their documents checked by three different services: Interior Ministry officers, Customs Service officers and the SBU. Only the officers from the Customs Service had insignia on their clothes.  However the police officer, Major (the surname was not remembered) introduced himself as the senior person on the checkpoint, while the SBU representative took most interest in our mission, reported to his management and told us that our presence was undesirable at this post. All these actions suggest that if there is a violation of human rights at this checkpoint, it will not be possible to establish responsibility. 

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