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'I Couldn’t Move for Five Minutes from Fear': An Investigation Into Cluster Bombs in Eastern Ukraine

VICE News commissioned an independent conflict damage assessment report into cluster munition attacks in Eastern Ukraine, the first of its kind in the region.
Photo by Harriet Salem

"The earth shook, the window panes rattled like they would fall out. I thought the whole building would collapse." Sitting in the shared kitchen of a bleak five-story Soviet-era housing block where she has lived since 1991, Svetlana recounted how in the evening of October 2, nearly a month into a supposed ceasefire, thunderous explosions sent her and other Donetsk residents running for the basement.


As Svetlana, 37, and her three children cowered in the underground sanctuary, a second round of shells slammed down even closer to home. "I tried to open the door for some passers-by to come inside, but I was blown backwards by the force of the explosion," she told VICE News.

Not all made it to safety in time. Gruesome video footage taken at around 7pm that evening, just hundreds of feet from Svetlana's apartment block, shows the charred corpse of Laurent DuPasquier, a 38-year-old Swiss worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), lying on the sidewalk.

Video footage showing the aftermath of the cluster munition strike which hit near the ICRC office on Universitetskaya Street.

According to an independent conflict damage assessment report commissioned by VICE News — the first of its kind into cluster munition attacks in eastern Ukraine — the rocket blast that killed DuPasquier outside his workplace, and wounded six more, was fired from the 9K57 Uragan multiple launch rocket system.

Technical analysis of 12 crater sites, shrapnel impact damage, and a building pierced by a rocket — as well as eyewitness testimonies — by Armament Research Services (ARES) concluded that the attack very likely originated from a position to the south of the city.

A hole blasted by a submunition in the roof of an outhouse of the supermarket adjacent to the ICRC office. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Submunition impact outside the ICRC office on Universitetskaya Street. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Holes blasted through the ceiling and floor of the emergency mining rescue unit building on Levitskogo Street. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Use of cluster munitions, an imprecise and inherently indiscriminate weapon that distributes deadly bomblets across a wide space, is prohibited under international law for nations that have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). Their use could amount to war crimes.


A total of 112 countries are party to the CCM, but neither Ukraine nor Russia  — nor the US — are signatories to the agreement.

As locals cleared up the debris the morning after the attack in the Boroshilovskiy district, Svetlana found her 6-year-old son, Ivan, playing with a sliver of metal he found outside. "I told him to throw it away," she said quietly.

This shrapnel-turned-toy was identified in the ARES report for VICE News — alongside rocket cargo warhead sections, unexploded submunitions, tail fins, and other distinctive fragment pieces — as one of the many scattered remnants of a 9M27K rocket, a cluster munition containing a payload of 30 9N210 bomblets.

Steel frags from a 9N210 submunition gathered in the backyard of the supermarket adjacent to the ICRC office. Photo by Harriet Salem.

A steel pellet from a 9N210 submunition. The weight of frags from 9N210 submunitions, 2 grams, distinguishes them from the otherwise visually identical 9N235 munitions. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Tail fin fragments from a 9N210 submunition recovered from near the ICRC office. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Fired from an Uragan (which means hurricane) multiple rocket launcher, a system originally designed in the Soviet era, the 9M2K7 rocket bursts mid-air releasing its silver soda can shaped bomblets stabilized in flight by black fins across a distance potentially as large as a soccer pitch.

Upon impact the submunitions explode, each spewing up to 400 two-gram deadly steel pellets at a velocity capable of pummeling through metal and cutting into concrete on impact.

A tail fin fragment of a 9N210 submunition lodged in a metal garage door. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Oksana, a 47-year-old shop worker, told VICE News how she was about to close up for the day when she heard the first explosions. "I didn't know whether to stay still or try and get away."

The second round of rockets sent as many as 19 submunitions cascading across a supermarket roof next to the spot where DuPasquier died and shrapnel flying through the shop front. "I just lay on the floor and didn't move an inch," Oksana said. "I couldn't move for at least five minutes from fear."


Video footage purported to show Uragan rockets being fired in east Ukraine.

Shells hit at least two separate sites in the October 2 attacks. Yet this is just one of 12 cluster weapon strikes documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in populated areas of Ukraine, where a supposed "ceasefire" — agreed by representatives of all warring parties — has been in effect since September 5.

In their report, which was released on Monday, HRW attributes responsibility for the October 2 attacks to Ukrainian forces, citing eyewitness accounts and discovery of 9N210 munitions near the village of Novomykhailivka, a village southwest of Donetsk in government-controlled territory, as evidence.

The Ukrainian government has responded by accusing the researchers of drawing their conclusions on inconclusive evidence and over-dependence on "the testimony of locals not concrete facts."

Conclusive attribution of responsibility for the specific attacks on populated areas, which amount to a violation of the laws of war and potentially open responsible parties up to prosecution for war crimes, is far from clear cut in a conflict where a dynamic frontline, multiple sites of fighting, and a range of armed groups operating under a loose line of command has made troop and weapon movements exceptionally hard to track on both sides.

Both sides in the Ukraine conflict have denied using cluster munitions in populated areas and accused the other side of responsibility for the attacks.


Based on the physical evidence from two hit sites provided by VICE News from the October 2 attacks, ARES experts were able to calculate an azimuth range lying between 120 and 210 degrees as the site of a possible firing position, indicating that the rockets most likely came from a southern direction.

A map indicating the possible azimuth range of the attack according to the physical evidence presented to ARES.

On its own, the physical evidence provided to ARES experts for technical analysis was insufficient to eliminate the possibility that the October 2 strike may also have originated from land controlled by pro-Russian forces.

An examination of the best knowledge of movements of troops, as well as eyewitness accounts of outgoing fire, indicate that the rockets may have been fired from one of several Ukrainian positions to the southwest of the hit sites, including the village of Novomykhailivka that was cited in the HRW report.

Locals from Ukrainian-held territory to the southwest of Donetsk told VICE News that the National Guard and other pro-Kiev battalions had reassumed their previous positions in several villages near Novomykhailivka, including Beresovoye, Stepnoye, and Sladkoe in late September. The added that these forces were using several places in the area, including the deluxe Forest Park spa-resort, as launch sites for weapons including Uragan and Smerch systems.

Locals said they believed the fire was mainly in the direction of Mariinka district, where there is an ongoing battle between the two warring sides, but they were not always able to distinguish between the sounds they heard. "It's not always possible to tell the difference between outgoing and incoming fire, what is being fired or where it is going," Igor Ognevoy, a 32-year-old from Stepnoye, told VICE News.


Even if responsibility for an attack is worked out, in order for a war crime to be committed, "knowledge of the impact of actions and a clear line of command between those giving orders and firing must be established," Ole Solvang, a senior emergencies researcher at HRW and one of investigators behind the recent report, told VICE News.

Legal technicalities, however, will provide scant comfort to the victims of this conflict, the family and colleagues of DuPasquier, or the citizens still caught in the crossfire.

At his house on Lepeshinkskogo Street in central Donetsk, Leonid Vasilievich, 72, told VICE News that he is afraid to go to sleep at night ever since highly-volatile unexploded 9N210 submunitions landed in his neighbor's garden in the October 2 attacks. As he talks, the whoosh and roar of nearby outgoing reverberates through the ground.

According to the United Nations, at least 331 people have died since the ceasefire came into effect. Dmitry Kalashnikov, director of Donetsk's morgue, told VICE News that at least 21 civilians had been killed as a result of shrapnel injuries during shelling or accidents involving unexploded ordinance in the past month.

Back in her kitchen, Svetlana reflected on the situation. As she makes a cup of tea, the dull thud of incoming fire can be heard in the distance. "Of course we're all very scared it will happen again, there's no way to know when or where. This is our life now: Bombs and children playing with scraps of rocket."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem