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Russia accused of weaponising hunger in Ukraine war

June 13, 2024

(CNN) — A group of international human rights lawyers has accused Russia of intentionally starving the civilians of Mariupol as a method of warfare during its 85-day siege of the Ukrainian city in early 2022.

A 76-page dossier published Thursday by the Starvation Mobile Justice Team of the human rights organisation Global Rights Compliance looks in detail at the siege, which it described as “hell on earth” for the port city’s residents, through the lens of the war crime of starvation as a calculated strategy.

It found that Russian forces “systematically attacked objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” while at the same time cutting off evacuation routes and blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Ukrainian civilians were cut off from water, electricity and gas and forced to drink from puddles, radiators and melted snow.

The findings didn’t come as a surprise to Nikolai Osychenko, who described living through the siege as a “Stone Age” experience.

“The Russians bombed the substation that supplied electricity to Mariupol on March 2 and we lost electricity, and at the same time, we also lost the water supply and heating,” he told CNN, adding that the city started running out of food almost immediately because without electricity, much of it has gone bad.

“We all realised that flour is the best thing to have. If you have water and flour, you can cook something. But without water, you can’t do anything,” he said.

The Mariupol resident spent two weeks living in one apartment with nine other people, rationing food and scraping together any water they could find.

They would spend two days melting buckets of snow with their hand, only to get a few inches of dirty water. Osychenko told CNN that at one point, he drank the water from his radiators, boiling it 20 times over to purify it.

Deliberately causing starvation and deprivation constitutes a war crime under international law.

The group is in the process of submitting its latest report to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as part of a larger dossier on Russia’s use of starvation.

According to their website, the organisation is funded by the governments of the EU Commission, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

CNN has reached out to Russia’s Ministry of Defence for comment.

Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, was encircled and captured by Russian forces at the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Local officials estimate that as many as 22,000 people were killed in the battle for the city, which is located in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast and has been under direct Russian control since May 2022.

‘Hell on earth’

The destroyed Mariupol Theatre building pictured in April 2022. (Photo: Pavel Klimov/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

It was in Mariupol that Russian forces carried out some of their most notorious strikes, including an attack on a maternity hospital and the bombing of a theatre in which up to 1,300 civilians had sought refuge, according to local officials.

The report, entitled, “’The Hope Left Us:’ Russia’s Siege, Starvation, and Capture of Mariupol City’” explores how “peaceful” Mariupol was turned into “hell on earth” in February 2022.

It uses open-source research to analyse over 1.5 billion square meters of satellite imagery, as well as photographs, videos, official public statements, and other digital data collected between May 2022 and February 2024.

Its several hundred thousand residents were forced to find alternative coping strategies during Russia’s siege, amid dwindling supplies and the obstruction of humanitarian aid.

This included the establishment of ad hoc distribution points for food, water and other basic necessities.

These distribution points, however, including the Mariupol Drama Theater and Neptun Swimming Pool Complex, became targets for the Russian army.

“Sustained attacks against Mariupol City forced the distribution of essential items to become largely mobile in order to mitigate risks of shelling, though a significant number of both mobile and stationary distribution points were still shelled, repeatedly exposing vulnerable and hungry residents to significant risk to their lives and means of securing basic necessities,” the report found.

It also found several instances where the delivery of vital humanitarian aid was allegedly denied or deliberately obstructed by Russian forces, while civilians were unable to evacuate from the city.

“Despite Russian forces’ command failing to halt hostilities in order to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, aid delivery was also directly blocked by pro-Russian forces operating at checkpoints erected around evacuation corridors between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia.”

’85-day offensive’

Women walk past a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol in May 2022. (Photo: Alexei Alexandrov/AP via CNN Newsource)

“They were in charge of food and they divided the food very clearly: so much porridge, so much this and so much that for the day. Once I caught them not eating at all. They cooked for us but they didn’t eat because they knew that there was nowhere to get food, and there was less and less of it,” he said.v

Yousuf Syed Khan, a senior lawyer with law firm Global Rights Compliance, told CNN he believes there was no doubt that the siege of Mariupol amounted to a war crime.

“They [the Russian army] did not allow for international organisations to provide civilian evacuations… even though the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well as the United Nations attempted numerous times to evacuate civilians.

“Number two is that they did not allow the entry of humanitarian aid. So not once through the 85-day offensive was there any pause in which they allowed humanitarian aid to enter Mariupol.”

Khan continued: “On top of that, they were attacking indispensable objects. They were attacking electricity, they were attacking water. They were attacking food distribution points.”

There were numerous opportunities for Russian forces to alleviate civilian suffering, he said, but they failed to do so.

Osychenko said that with each day, the situation was getting more and more desperate. Mothers that had small children, many of them lost milk from the stress and hunger, there was no formula, no children food,” he said.

When Russian troops took over the city, they tried to take advantage of the desperate situation.

“When Russia came to the city, when they started delivering food to people in basements, giving candies to children, even if you hate Russia, you will go out to them and take it. Because you have nothing to eat, your kids have nothing to drink. It’s brutal,” he said.

Khan said the way Moscow approached the siege was part of a broader strategy that Russian and pro-Russian forces have used regularly in the past eight years. He pointed to sieges laid by pro-Russian forces across Syria, including those in eastern Aleppo City and Ghouta, as examples of heavy-handed Russian tactics.

Ukrainian authorities and some international officials have previously accused Russia of robbing the country of grain and other commodities in areas it occupied.

Accusations that Russia is using food as a weapon of war have been mounting ever since the first reports emerged in the spring of 2022 of grain being stolen by Russian troops.

The ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Ukraine. It has so far issued four arrest warrants related to Ukraine, including for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children.

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