The use of Grad rockets in populated areas violates the laws-of-war prohibition against indiscriminate attacks. Attacks not directed at valid military targets are also unlawfully indiscriminate.
Unguided Grad rockets launched apparently by Ukrainian government forces and pro-government militias have killed at least 16 civilians and wounded many more in insurgent-controlled areas of Donetsk and its suburbs in at least four attacks between July 12 and 21, 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.
The use of indiscriminate rockets in populated areas violates international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, and may amount to war crimes.
Grads are unguided rockets that cannot be targeted accurately, and are often fired in salvos from multi-barrel rocket launchers to saturate a wide area.
Human Rights Watch called on all parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, particularly Ukrainian government forces, to stop using Grad rockets in or near populated areas because of the likelihood of killing and wounding civilians.
Insurgent forces should also minimize the risk to civilians under their control by avoiding deploying forces and weapons in densely populated areas.
'Notoriously imprecise' weapons
"Grad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn't be used in populated areas", said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. "If insurgent and Ukrainian government forces are serious about limiting harm to civilians, they should both immediately stop using these weapons in populated areas."
Anti-Kiev insurgent forces started asserting control over Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine with a population of almost one million, in April. Because of security concerns, Human Rights Watch was unable to determine first-hand the impact of the Grad attacks on insurgent forces and installations.
Both Ukrainian government and insurgent forces have recently used Grad rockets. Although Ukrainian government officials and the press service of the National Guard have denied using Grad rockets in Donetsk, a Human Rights Watch investigation on the ground strongly indicates that Ukrainian government forces were responsible for the attacks that occurred between July 12 and 21.
The four attacks took place close to the front line between insurgent and government forces. Impact craters on the ground and on buildings investigated by Human Rights Watch were characteristic of rocket attacks, not shelling.
In all four cases, 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.
These could not have been insurgent attacks
The attacks' proximity to the front line also makes it unlikely, and in some cases impossible, that insurgent forces were responsible for the attacks. In two of the attacks, rockets hit on or near insurgent bases and checkpoints at the same time as they hit residential areas, indicating government forces were responsible.
In the July 21 attack, three civilians died when Grad rockets hit a residential area near the Donetsk train station. Ongoing fighting made it difficult for Human Rights Watch to determine whether there were additional casualties, but what could be identified as Grad rockets by their distinctive sound could be heard throughout the day.
On July 19, at least five rockets struck a residential area in the Kuibyshivskyi district in western Donetsk, injuring at least four civilians.
Human Rights Watch documented multiple rocket impacts on July 12 on a residential area in the Petrovskyi district on the western outskirts of Donetsk that killed at least seven civilians.
Also on July 12, multiple rockets struck a residential area in Maryinka, a village just outside of Donetsk, close to the Petrovskyi district, killing at least six civilians.
Human Rights Watch was able to identify the rockets fired as unguided 122-millimeter surface-to-surface Grad artillery rockets launched from multi-barrel rocket launchers with up to 40 launch tubes. Most Grad rockets have a range of 1.5 to 20 kilometers. The rockets vary in length from 1.9 to 3.3 meters and weigh 45 to 75 kilograms.
The laws of war apply to the Eastern Ukraine conflict
Grad rockets use various types of warheads. The most common is a high explosive / fragmentation type, which contains approximately 6.4 kilograms of high explosives and is designed to produce 3,150 fragments, which can kill or injure within a radius of 28 meters.
At its maximum range of some 20 kilometers, the most common rocket (9M22U) with the basic high explosive/fragmentation (M-21-OF) warhead is only accurate within a rectangle of 336 meters by 160 meters. In other words, from its aim point, the rocket could land anywhere within a rectangle of approximately 54,000 square meters.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine is governed by the laws of war, which apply to all parties to the conflict. Grad rockets cannot be targeted with sufficient precision to differentiate military targets, which may be attacked, from civilians and civilian structures, such as homes and schools not being used for military purposes, which are immune from attack.
As such, their use in populated areas violates the laws-of-war prohibition against indiscriminate attacks. In addition, attacks not directed at valid military targets are also unlawfully indiscriminate.
Human Rights Watch said that insurgent forces have failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid deploying in densely populated areas, thereby endangering civilians in violation of the laws of war.
In one case, separatist forces moved their base closer to the center of the town when Grad rockets struck their base and a nearby residential area. Violations of the laws of war by one side to the conflict do not justify violations by the other side.
Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, that is intentionally or recklessly, are responsible for war crimes.
"Ukrainian authorities should order all their forces, including volunteer forces, to immediately stop using Grads in or near populated areas, and insurgent forces should avoid deploying in densely populated areas", Solvang said. "Commanding officers on all sides should recognize that one day they could face legal consequences for their actions."
Human Rights Watch called on Ukraine's international supporters to urge the Ukrainian government to strictly adhere to international humanitarian law, including by ending all use of Grad rockets in populated areas.
Attacks Near the Train Station, July 21
On July 21, Ukrainian government forces stationed on the northwest edge of Donetsk began a military offensive against insurgent forces in the area around and north of the train station.
Because of contradictory statements by Ukrainian authorities, it was not immediately clear whether the offensive was conducted by government forces or pro-Kiev volunteer forces operating on their own.
Media reports quoted a spokesman for Ukraine's military stating that the fighting around the train station was "a planned offensive ... to push rebels away from the airport", but that "[a]viation and artillery are not aiming at civilian residences. Their only aim is to block the terrorists and fighters."
In a separate media report, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, denied that government forces were involved in any fighting, but claimed that a small self-organized group of pro-Kiev forces were fighting insurgents.
Information collected by Human Rights Watch indicates that the Grad rockets killed at least three civilians during the attack.
Local residents told Human Rights Watch that several rockets had struck their neighborhood, just south of the train station, at about 10:30 a.m. They said one of the rockets struck the courtyard of an apartment complex, killing one woman and wounding a man. The woman did not live in the apartment complex so the neighbors did not know her name.
A Human Rights Watch visit to the site found an impact crater with blood next to it in the middle of the courtyard. There was also blood on the steps leading up to one of the nearby buildings. Neighbors said shrapnel from the same rocket had injured a man there and that he then tried to drag himself up the steps and into the building.
While the area is generally under insurgent control, as is most of Donetsk, local residents told Human Rights Watch that no insurgent forces or weapons had been in the area at the time of the attack.
Foreign journalists told Human Rights Watch that a second rocket killed two men near a school about 100 meters away from the rocket that killed the woman. A security expert working with the New York Times provided Human Rights Watch with the GPS coordinates of the strike that killed the two men and another strike in the immediate vicinity.
The security expert also provided Human Rights Watch with GPS coordinates for three impact sites, also in a residential area, located to the northeast of the train station. There was no information about casualties from that area.
Human Rights Watch heard what appeared to be salvos of Grad rockets being launched from multi-barrel launchers from the north of the city throughout the day, but ongoing fighting made it difficult to establish whether there were additional civilian casualties.
Attack on Kuibyshivskyi district, July 19
Human Rights Watch documented five impact sites in Pervaya Ploshchad, a residential area of mostly three- to five-story buildings on the western edge of Donetsk, caused by a rocket attack at about 4 p.m. on July 19.
One of the rockets struck a five-story residential building at 6 Tumanyana Street. Valentina Fedorovna, 77, who lives on the ground floor, told Human Rights Watch:
"I was just about to turn on the TV when I heard a loud whistling noise and a big bang. Then I don't remember anything more until somebody shouted 'Is there anybody alive in here?' Then a young man came and pulled me out. I was completely in shock."
Another resident, who was injured by a piece of shrapnel that went through her arm and a smaller one lodged in her chest, told Human Rights Watch:
"All of a sudden I felt an explosion that pushed back so I hit my head. I didn't even notice that I was wounded. All the windows shattered. People were screaming."
A Human Rights Watch examination of the site found that the rocket had entered through the second floor of the building, continued through the kitchen and bathroom of Valentina Fedorovna's apartment on the ground floor, and went farther down to the basement. "If the rocket had hit two meters to the left it would have gone through the living room where I was sitting instead of the kitchen", Valentina Fedorovna said.
Another rocket, which hit the courtyard about 20 meters from Valentina Federovna's building, wounded four people, who were taken to the hospital. Neighbors said one woman was seriously injured by a piece of shrapnel that lodged in her chest.
A third rocket struck the playground of School 71; a fourth hit the road outside the local church, shattering most of the windows; and a fifth hit a single-story house that was empty at the time.
Both the flight direction of the rockets and circumstances of the attack indicate that Ukrainian government forces were responsible. The rocket striking 6 Tumanyana Street hit its western façade. The crater in the soft ground in the school playground also showed that the rockets came from a western direction.
At the time of the attack, the front line between insurgent and Ukrainian government forces was several kilometers farther west, according to local residents.
Insurgent forces manning a checkpoint about three kilometers west of the Pervaya Ploshchad area told Human Rights Watch that Grad rockets had also hit their checkpoint and the area between the checkpoint and the residential area in the same attack.
Human Rights Watch observed craters, marks on the asphalt, and remnants of Grad rockets near the checkpoint and between the checkpoint and the residential area that were consistent with this account.
Attack on Petrovskyi district, July 12
At about 4 p.m. on July 12, multiple Grad rockets hit a residential area in Petrovskyi district in the western part of Donetsk. The area that was hit is several kilometers north of a road that demarcates the front line between insurgent and Ukrainian government forces.
Human Rights Watch examined 19 impact craters in an area about 600 meters wide. Local residents also showed Human Rights Watch remnants from Grad rockets that they said had hit their gardens or houses.
In one case, a rocket struck the house and garage at 2 Chugaeva Street, killing an entire family of two adults and two children.
Liudmila, 62, was at home in Chugaeva Street when the attack happened. She told Human Rights Watch:
"I was in my room when I first heard a whistling sound. The walls and windows started to shake and then there were many loud bangs. My son was in the kitchen. He came running when the attack started, probably trying to save me, but a shrapnel hit him in the leg. What's here that they wanted to attack? There is no factory here, no fighters, just poor houses."
Liudmila's car was destroyed in the attack and Human Rights Watch observed significant damage to her house. Her son was recovering.
An officer on duty in the local police station showed Human Rights Watch the logbook from July 12 and provided Human Rights Watch with addresses where people had died during the attack. The police had registered seven deaths, including the four people mentioned above.
Craters and marks on buildings showed that the rockets had been launched from a location to the southeast. The likely launch area is located south of the southern-most checkpoint manned by insurgent forces.
Several of the impact craters indicated that the rockets had come from a southern direction. Local residents said that there had been no insurgent forces or weapons in the area before the attack.
Attack on Maryinka, July 12
At about 10 p.m. on July 12, multiple Grad rockets struck an area in the southeastern part of the village of Maryinka, which consists of fields, an industrial zone, and a residential area, clustered around a milk factory.
Maryinka has about 10,000 inhabitants and is just outside the western edge of Donetsk, adjacent to the Petrovskyi district. It consists mainly of three- to five-story buildings.
A 25-year-old taxi driver told Human Rights Watch:
"I was at home when the attack started. I ran to the basement immediately, but the attack was over in about 40 seconds. There was no warning. Nothing had happened here before.
"I only came out from the basement when the [insurgents] came to evacuate us. Everything was burning and there was debris everywhere. I never thought that something like this could happen here."
The local department for housing and utilities, which documented the effects of the strike, provided Human Rights Watch with the names of six people who died in that attack. All of those killed were between the ages of 45 and 60. Fifteen people were taken to the hospital, a department employee said, most with light injuries such as concussions.
Human Rights Watch documented multiple Grad rocket impacts in the residential area. Several buildings had been hit directly, and most buildings in the area had broken windows.
According to the housing and utilities department, at least 12 apartment buildings had direct rocket hits. Human Rights Watch discovered remnants of Grad rockets in multiple locations in the area that was hit, including inside destroyed apartments.
At the time of the attack, insurgent forces manned a checkpoint about 800 meters southwest of the edge of the village, and an unknown number of insurgent forces were deployed on the opposite side of the road, between the checkpoint and the residential area that was hit.
The base commander said that both the checkpoint and the base were struck at the same time as the residential area and that 22 rockets landed on the territory of his base.
There were additional Grad attacks against the same area in at least the two following days, residents and the commander said, but most civilians evacuated immediately after the initial attack. Following the attacks, the insurgent base relocated closer to the center of Maryinka, the commander said.
Ukrainian government forces appear responsible for the attacks. All the rockets that had struck buildings hit walls facing southwest, indicating that the rockets came from there.
Insurgent force personnel told Human Rights Watch that none of their troops were located farther southwest beyond the checkpoint 800 meters from the residential part of Maryinka, which, if true, would not have made it possible for them to have carried out the attack.
A journalist who travelled to some of the villages southeast of Maryinka two days after the attack told Human Rights Watch that he saw no insurgent forces in that area at that time.
The journalist told Human Rights Watch that pro-Kiev forces in non-standard uniforms in Novomikhaylivka, a village southwest of Maryinka, had boasted to him the following day that they had a Grad rocket system and that they were firing on insurgent forces. The soldiers told the journalist that their aiming was accurate because they had scouts that helped them direct the fire.
A resident of Maryinka who fled to another village after the attack told Human Rights Watch that he saw Grad rockets being launched twice from a village farther southwest, which was under the control of Ukrainian forces on July 13.
More information and full-size images at Ukraine: 'Unguided Rockets Killing Civilians'.