The explosion of the bomb that Russia dropped on Wednesday at the Mariupol mother and child hospital in southeastern Ukraine engulfed everything around it. Trees were reduced to splinters, part of the facade and the roof of one of the buildings volatilized. The heat melted the chassis of the cars – still on fire in the video that shows the ravages of the attack – and the blast wave ripped out doors and windows. In that jumble of bloody mattresses, furniture and rubble to which the interior of the hospital was reduced, the misfortune caused the death of only three fatalities, including a six-year-old girl. Another 17 people were badly injured. The trajectory of the bomb, which did not hit a building but fell into the tree-lined atrium of the complex, prevented an even worse tragedy.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, defined this attack as an “atrocity”, an almost perfect synonym for the word war. But not even in armed conflicts “everything goes”, recalls the professor at the University of Malaga, expert in International Humanitarian Law, Elena del Mar García Rico. Because the branch of law that “puts limits on the barbarism” of wars, this specialist underlines, “always” vetoes attacks against civilians. If it is a bombing of a hospital, as in Mariupol, the war crime is almost flagrant. The norms that constitute the heart of International Humanitarian Law —the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1997— grant reinforced protection to hospitals, which may not be attacked “under any circumstances”. Among the people “under special protection” there are also “parturients” like those who left the Mariupol hospital battered on Wednesday on a stretcher and with their clothes stained with blood.
The possible war crime committed in the hospital of that city on the Black Sea is becoming more than an exception, a norm in the war in Ukraine. Examples abound. According to the World Health Organization, even before bombing that maternity hospital, Kremlin forces had attacked at least 18 health facilities. On March 3, another bombing in the northern city of Chernihiv killed 47 people queuing to buy bread, Amnesty International reported. Three days later, a missile massacred a mother and her two children in Irpin, 25 kilometers from Kiev, when the fighters were supposed to respect a humanitarian corridor for civilians to escape. On Friday, Oleh Synegubov, governor of Kharkiv (east), a city of 1.5 million people, accused Moscow of shelling residential neighborhoods 89 times in one day.
Such systematic attacks against populated areas raise fears that the UN figure of 549 civilians killed in just over two weeks of war is far below reality, as the United Nations itself warns. The local Council of Mariupol raises to at least 1,582 civilians who have died in the more than 10 days that this city has been under siege by Russian troops. Among the innocent victims of the war in Ukraine, at least 79 embody the essence of a defenseless civilian: they were children, the country’s Juvenile Prosecutor’s Office has denounced. Children like the five-year-old girl and the two babies, known only to have been born in 2021, who perished this week when a Russian aerial bombardment destroyed seven houses in Malin, 129 kilometers west of the capital.
Targeting civilians is not the only red line in what was previously known as the laws of war that the Kremlin military may be crossing. International Humanitarian Law also limits the means—weapons—and the methods used in armed conflicts. The appearance of the huge crater caused by the Mariupol hospital bomb reinforces, for example, the accusation that Moscow is using “dumb bombs” weighing up to half a ton, explains Security and Defense analyst Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana. These bombs are defined as “dumb” as opposed to “smart”; that is, those with a high-precision guidance system that theoretically allows those “surgical” attacks that the Kremlin boasted about in the early days of the invasion. More than “dumb”, bombs like the one at the Mariupol hospital are blind: they kill indiscriminately. Where they fall, they devastate everything, so they do not allow to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
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This type of indiscriminate weapons directed against inhabited areas violate another of the limits of international law: the one that forces “to avoid cruelty”, recalls Del Mar. There are weapons that are crueler than others, that cause more damage and for a longer time . The specialist cites cluster bombs, which when falling release a large number of submunitions – bomblets – of which many do not explode even for decades. Those bomblets resemble a ball, a toy projectile or a soda can. They attract children and their use reflects “a total disregard for the lives of civilians,” deplores Pérez Triana. On Friday, the UN claimed to have “credible information” of the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine by Russia. The analyst confirms it: “BM-30 Smerch rocket containers have appeared, which are used to launch these bombs.”
Acts like the siege of Mariupol also show cruelty; which is derived from keeping 200,000 of its half a million inhabitants, according to the Red Cross, without food, water or heating and deprived of humanitarian aid. Its inhabitants do not even have the consolation of burying their dead if it is not in mass graves. International Humanitarian Law prohibits, emphasizes Elena del Mar, “terrorizing the civilian population”, preventing civilians from escaping and denying them access to humanitarian aid.
Lawyer Almudena Bernabéu considers that “everything in this war is atrocious”. This jurist, who managed to get the National High Court to convict Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide and for that court to admit a case against the Syrian military leadership, believes that “that creepy guy [el presidente ruso, Vladímir Putin] not only violates International Humanitarian Law, but also International Criminal Law. Russia has committed a crime that was coined at the Nuremberg Trials: aggression. What Putin has done is the same thing that Hitler did when he invaded Poland and triggered World War II. I am convinced that Russia is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.”
In 2016, after the Russian bombings in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime —the most serious, in Aleppo— the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said: “Russia has decided to indiscriminately bomb and terrorize every human being in instead of focusing on fighting the enemy.” He called it the “Grozny doctrine”, alluding to the capital of Chechnya, which was totally razed to the ground by the Russian Armed Forces in 1999.
This strategy consists of massive bombardments that seek to cause almost total destruction, terrorize civilians and force the establishment of humanitarian corridors so that the population flees and leaves the way open for a final offensive that annihilates any remaining resistance. In Ukraine, the steps of Chechnya and Syria are “repeated”, explains analyst Pérez Triana. “We have not yet seen the Russians use the maximum of violence,” warns, however, this expert.
The journalist Anna Politkovskaia knew well the conduct of the Vladimir Putin regime in wars. She was the great chronicler of the atrocities of the Russian Army in the second Chechen war. She narrated the executions and the mass rapes. She recounted the stories of entire families being beheaded and those of other Chechens who had been ripped open by the Russian military before inserting their own heads into their abdomens. Others were burned alive with flamethrowers. In an unfinished article on the day of her murder, October 7, 2006, Politkovskaia had written: “Your hate scares me.”