The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, presumably by a separatist surface to air missile, internationalizes a conflict that has already claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands of people. As we rightly express outrage over MH17, we shouldn’t forget that civilians are caught in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and separatists. Eastern Ukraine became a tragedy long before MH17 was shot out of the sky. Only now with an international incident perhaps people will pay more attention. What they will find is a warzone in Europe once again.
Civilians are caught in the middle of this warzone. It’s easy to forget this until you read the stories. Here’s one description from the Kyiv Post:
The streets of Donetsk were mostly empty all day, and rebels set up new block posts in the city to control traffic. Residents were seen fleeing from the area around the train station, suitcases in tow. All around, explosions from artillery reverberated, and a dense cloud of black smoke rose from a car factory in the distance.
The courtyard of a residential complex was a warzone marked with craters likely from Grad rockets mere meters from a children’s swingset.
When 31-year-old Vlad Kozlov opened the front door of his flat near Donetsk’s central railway station en route to the institute where he teaches, two pieces of shrapnel from one of the rockets struck him in the legs. Kozlov was taken to a local hospital, but not before leaving sprawling blood stains on the stairs inside his apartment building.
“He is going to have an operation,” said Valentina Nikolayevna, his grandmother. “I hope he won’t become disabled after this.”
Just 50 meters away, another blood stain marked the place where a woman was killed by the same rocket. Her body had been taken away, but her shoes remained at the site.
Sergey, a local resident who refused to give his last name, showed the Kyiv Post a video taken just after the incident of the woman’s mutilated body. “Now I want just to take up a gun myself [and fight Kiev’s forces],” he said.
Complete civilian casualty figures are hard to determine. Numbers come from local medical personnel, eye witnesses, and fact finding missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). An OSCE report the released on July 20 based on evidence from local doctors estimated that at least 250 civilians have been killed and over 850 wounded in Luhansk in June and July alone. According to a recent OSCE Special Monitoring Mission update, the shelling of Luhansk on July 17-18 left 20 people dead and 150 injured. On July 18-19, according to information the head of the Lugansk city morgue, 29 people had been killed, all of them civilians except one. And about 40 miles from the MH17 crash site, three civilians were killed in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and rebels. This is only a small glimpse into the continuing carnage.
Both sides have an interest in fudging the numbers, deny firing on civilians, and cast blame on each other. But this misses the point. Like the 298 people who were killed in MN17, many Ukrainian civilians are casualties of a civil war that only promises to get more violent in the coming weeks.