To push back Russians, Ukrainians hit a village with cluster munitions

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HUSARIVKA, Ukraine – In early March, the spent nuclear warhead from a cluster munitions missile landed next to Yurii Doroshenko’s home in eastern Ukraine after he dropped deadly bombs over his village.

“They were shooting and it ended up on the street,” he said.

These types of internationally banned weapons have been used repeatedly by the Russian military since it invaded Ukraine in February. Human rights groups have denounced its use. Western leaders have linked their presence to a slew of war crimes allegations against Moscow.

But the cluster munitions that landed next to Mr. Doroshenko’s house were not fired by Russian troops. Based on evidence reviewed by The New York Times during a visit to the area, it is highly likely that it was launched by Ukrainian forces attempting to retake the area.

No one died in that strike in Husarivka, an agricultural hamlet surrounded by wheat fields and natural gas pipelines, although at least two people were killed when Ukrainian forces shelled it targeting Russian forces for most of the month.

As the war approaches its eighth week, both sides have relied heavily on artillery and missiles to drive each other out. But the Ukrainians’ decision to saturate their own village with cluster munitions that have the capacity to indiscriminately kill innocent people underscores their strategic calculation: this is what they had to do to retake their land, no matter the cost.

Cluster ammunition – a class of weapons consisting of rockets, bombs, rockets, mortars and artillery shells – split open in mid-air, scattering smaller bombs over a large area. The danger to civilians remains high until unexploded ordnance is located and properly disposed of by experts.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which came into effect in 2010, bans their use because of the indiscriminate damage they can cause to civilians: Humanitarian groups have noted that 20 percent or more of anti-personnel submunitions do not explode on impact, but can explode later when they are picked up or handled.

More than 100 countries have signed the pact, although the United States, Ukraine and Russia have not.

“It’s not surprising, but it’s absolutely mind-boggling to hear that evidence has surfaced to indicate that Ukraine has used cluster munitions in this current conflict,” said Mary Wareham, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s weapons division. “Cluster munitions are unacceptable weapons that kill and maim civilians across Ukraine.”

An adviser to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense declined to comment.

Russian forces had captured Husarivka from Ukrainian units in the first few days of March, occupying buildings on the outskirts and near the center. The 220-millimeter Uragan artillery rocket that landed near Mr. Doroshenko’s home — fired from a truck-mounted launcher many miles away — struck on March 6 or 7, said Mr. Doroshenko, the informal leader of the city.

At that time, the village was well under Russian control.

During the occupation, Ukrainian troops incessantly fired on Russian troops there, and at least two of the same type of cluster munitions were housed in a field near Mr. Doroshenko’s home, just a few hundred meters from the makeshift Russian headquarters in an abandoned farm workshop.

The rockets fell around a small neighborhood of a dozen single-storey houses interspersed with small gardens.

During a visit to Mr. Doroshenko’s property and street on Thursday, Times reporters collected metal fragments left over from the detonation of anti-personnel ammunition released by artillery rockets. The target was most likely the presence of the Russian army there.

As the missiles approached the farm, their warheads — probably carrying 30 anti-personnel bombs each — would separate from the weapons’ solid rocket motors, smashing open and throwing their deadly payload around the neighborhood.

These small ammunition each contains the equivalent of about 11 ounces of TNT, just under twice as much as a standard hand grenade.

The attack on the Husarivka farm appears to be the first verified use of cluster munitions by Ukrainian forces since the Russian invasion began on February 24. In 2015, Ukrainian troops used cluster munitions during the early months of their war against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

When faced with the prospect that the Ukrainian army had shelled his village with cluster bombs, Mr Doroshenko, 58, seemed indifferent.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The important thing is that after those missiles, everyone will get out alive.”

The danger of small unexploded ordnance prevented Times reporters from scrutinizing all the weapons that landed. They visually verified from a distance two of the three missile remains as Uragan cluster munitions, which leave the missile’s nose cone, followed by a long skeletal metal frame that held the bombs together in flight.

On April 8, The Times verified that a similar type of Uragan missile loaded with landmines against vehicles was fired by Russian forces in an attack on the city of Bezruky, a suburb of Kharkov, once Ukraine’s second largest city.

Much has been said about the Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities — frequent artillery barrages injuring and killing residents and pushing those left behind in these disputed areas into basements or shelters. The danger to civilians is no different under the barrels of Ukrainian artillery as their forces desperately try to recapture parts of the country under Russian control.

Lubov Dvoretska, 62, lost her husband, Olexandr, in the shelling of Husarivka by Ukrainian troops in late March, just days before Russian troops withdrew there.

“One shoots this way, the other a different way,” she said. ‘My God, everything thunders. And on March 10, it was said that half of Husarivka had left for Chepelivka. Pack up and leave, because it gets worse. And then I left.”

Mrs. Dvoretska fled, but her husband, Olexandr, stayed behind to tend their livestock. Residents later told her that Olexandr was injured in a mortar attack on March 22 and most likely died the next day.

“He was found dead in the house on the 23rd, and on the 24th they could barely reach me on the phone to notify me,” she said. “Just as he was, in the same clothes, he was buried inhumanly, like an animal.”

Another man, Volodymyr Strokov, was killed in the shelling on March 22, residents said.

Before the war, Husarivka had just over 1,000 inhabitants. It has now fallen to about 400, after hundreds packed up what they could and left. Ukrainian troops recaptured the village around March 26. Now the village — about three miles from the front line near the eastern city of Izium — is under daily attack from both Russian artillery and aircraft, residents said.

Through tears, Mrs. Dvoretska pointed to where her neighbors had buried her husband in a raised earth grave in their backyard, marked with a homemade wooden cross.

“I never thought it would happen this way,” she screamed. “It never crossed my mind that I would be left alone in my old age. Only.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Husarivka, Ukraine, and John Ismay from Washington. Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Husarivka.



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