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“There is not an hour that we do not think of that day and what we lost.”

22 Sep 2015
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People collected ammunition remnants from Misrata city, and made an open air museum in Tripoli Street, Misrata (August 2011).
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In conflicts the world over bombs and missiles routinely kill and maim civilians. Three new reports show the horrific humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in residential areas.

In conflicts the world over bombs and missiles routinely destroy people’s homes, killing and maiming the inhabitants and leaving the civilian population terrorised.

Three reports were launched on 21 September, the International Day of Peace, by OCHA and partners, including peace advocacy NGOs PAX and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). The reports show the horrific humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in civilian-populated areas in Libya, Yemen and Ukraine. Collateral - The human cost of explosive violence in Ukraine, Shattered lives - Civilians suffer from the use of explosive weapons in Libya, and State of crisis: explosive weapons in Yemen call on States and armed groups to stop using explosive weapons — particularly weapons with wide-area effects — in towns and cities across the world.

The reports also reiterate the UN Secretary-General’s call for States to develop and adopt practical measures and guidance to reduce the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in urban areas. A number of States, UN agencies and NGOs are currently gathered in Austria to discuss these recommendations and a way forward.

Explosive weapons vary widely in their design and delivery method. They may include bombs, rockets, mortars or improvised explosive devices, but each share the same aim: to fragment on detonation, and to kill, injure or destroy anything in the vicinity as effectively as possible.

While explosive weapons are not expressly prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL), their use must comply with the general rules of IHL governing the conduct of hostilities, which contain clear provisions and principles aimed at protecting civilians. In many cases the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will violate the fundamental IHL principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, which are designed to limit loss of civilian life.

When fighting parties detonate explosive weapons in populated areas, an astonishing 92 per cent of the people killed or injured are civilians, according to data collected in 2014 by AOAV. Its research also showed that during the fighting in Libya since 2011, civilians comprised 79 per cent of all reported deaths and injuries from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, 89 per cent in the heaviest periods of fighting in Ukraine and 95 per cent in the brutal conflict that is currently raging in Yemen. Due to the sheer intensity of explosive violence in Yemen, the country recorded more civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons during the first seven months of 2015 than in any other country. The vast majority of these deaths and injuries occurred in populated areas.

In Ukraine, an average of nine civilians were killed or injured per attack using explosive weapons. However, the number rose to 14 civilian deaths or injuries on average when multiple-launch rocket systems were used.

The trauma caused by these types of attacks is unfathomable. In Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, one resident, Mohammed Sarhan, described the moment an air strike hit a missile base at Faj Attan in his neighbourhood. “It was like the doors of hell opened, I felt the house lift up and fall,” he said. Another resident, Osamah al-Fakih, said that when speaking to his sister after the bomb attack, “I could hear my two-year-old nephew crying out in fear and screaming ‘Mama, Mama.’ His voice is still resonating in my head as each shell goes off.”

In Ukraine’s Donetsk province, the scene of heavy explosive-weapons use and high levels of civilian casualties, 145 health centres were shelled and 164 schools damaged. Natalia, 31, was seven-months pregnant when she fled her home. “It’s impossible to live here – the shelling is almost every day,” she said. “There’s no water, no gas, nothing – no conditions for life… The apartment is on the contact line so it’s right in the middle [of the conflict]. We were told ‘Please take all you can because this place will not exist’.”

The use of explosive weapons in civilian areas not only kills and injures civilian residents, but it also destroys their electricity grids and water and sanitation systems, forces schools and health clinics to shut down, decimates people’s livelihoods and causes mass displacement, effectively damaging lives for years to come. Even when conflicts finally end, these towns and cities will remain heavily contaminated with explosive remnants of war for years, depriving civilians of access to land, schools, water points, religious sites and other locations and putting children in particular at risk.

Mustafa Alshami, a father of three, lives in Misrata, Libya. He was running errands in May 2011 when a neighbour told him a missile had hit his home.

“There was a hole in the side of my house with a missile in the ground. There was a great deal of commotion, and someone had been holding my four-year-old daughter, Malak. Her legs were shredded. My two-year-old daughter, Rodaina, and my three-year-old son, Mohamed, were dead,” he said.

“If I could ask for something, I would tell the international community to please ban these weapons wherever people live. We are completely innocent. Why is it OK for soldiers to fight in safety from so far away, and for my children to die or live like this? This is not OK. We are not the ones who chose to fight. Please, this must be banned now.Four years have passed, but there is not an hour that we do not think of that day and what we lost.”

Shattered lives - Civilians suffer from the use of explosive weapons in Libya Collateral - The human cost of explosive violence in Ukraine State of Crisis: Explosive weapons in Yemen (OCHA-AOAV)