More than 6,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the start of the conflict almost a year ago that has led to a “merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure,” the U.N. human rights office said Monday.
In its ninth report on the situation in the war-torn country, the UN painted a bleak picture of developments and warned there had been a serious escalation of the conflict since the beginning of this year.
The UN cited “credible allegations” of human rights abuses against civilians, including “arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances, committed mostly by the armed groups but in some instances also by the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.” It noted video footage appeared to support allegations of summary executions by the rebels.
The report said swelling violence and dire living conditions had forced more and more people to flee, and by mid-February, at least one million people had been registered as internally displaced inside Ukraine.
“Many have been trapped in conflict zones, forced to shelter in basements, with hardly any drinking water, food, heating, electricity or basic medical supplies,” UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a press release. Displacement has also increased the risk for women from sex traffickers, the report found.
Altogether, the UN report found that 5,665 people were killed and 13,961 wounded from the beginning of the conflict in April through the middle of last month.
But Zeid’s office said the escalation in fighting in recent weeks, especially near Donetsk airport and around Debaltseve, had left hundreds of civilians and fighters dead, sending the toll soaring past the 6,000 mark.
“The deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime and if widespread and systematic, a crime against humanity,” warned UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic.
Additionally, while Russia denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine, the U.N. cited “credible reports (that) indicate a continuing flow of heavy weaponry and foreign fighters” from Russia.
Ukraine’s growing public health crisis
In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that fighting in Ukraine had wreaked havoc on the country’s health system, leaving an estimated 5 million people with limited or no access to critical health supplies and services. Up to 70 percent of the nation’s health workers are thought to have died or fled the country, and hospitals are frequently cut off from water and electricity. Additionally, deliveries of food and critical medicine supplies have all but stopped.
The WHO cautioned that outbreaks of infectious diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, and polio pose a major threat to Ukraine, where vaccination coverage has dropped below 50 percent for many diseases. Displaced persons and people trapped in the hard-hit eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk are most at risk, the report said.
Also vulnerable are the estimated 32,000 HIV/AIDS patients from the Donbas region, who do not have access to the full range of medications they need to control their illness, as well as tens of thousands of people with tuberculosis who are at great risk of interrupted treatment — a trend that could compound existing problems with drug resistance.