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Russian General Alexander Zhuravlyov, who oversaw the worst atrocities in Syria, led cluster munition rocket attacks on civilians in Ukraine


Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov, who oversaw one of the most brutal chapters of the Syrian war, led the attacks on civilians in Ukraine. 

The moment possible cluster bombs hit Kharkiv 0:43

Kharkiv, Ukraine (CNN) --

Fetching drinking water for her family on a sunny but chilly afternoon in late February, Margarita Kiriukhina tried to ignore the banging and banging of Russian shelling near her.

In line, two thermoses in hand, he tried to lighten the mood, joking with his neighbors as they waited their turn at the water dispenser.

Despite the horrors that befell his town after Russia invaded Ukraine, they lined up in an orderly fashion.

Suddenly, Kiriukhina heard a whistle from above.

After glimpsing something out of the corner of her eye, she yelled at everyone to get down.

The line quickly became bloody, the air filled with screams.

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A Smerch cluster rocket hit a car in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Moscow had just launched one of its notorious 300mm Smerch cluster rockets, a projectile that releases 72 submunitions in an area the size of a football field, hitting Kiriukhina and her neighbors with it.

The torrent of shrapnel severed Kiriukhina's leg, hand and forehead.

A man who was near her lost two of her fingers.


“I could feel my leg and hip breaking.

They hit my arm and I couldn't feel my head," Kiriukhina told CNN.

The 56-year-old woman was taken to hospital in a wheelbarrow and was hospitalized for ten days.

A video posted on social media showed a woman putting on a brave face as her leg bled.

A severed foot lay a couple of meters away.

Another woman made a tourniquet out of a dog collar, hopelessly trying to save the injured woman, according to eyewitness testimony.

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Margarita Kiriukhina was hospitalized for 10 days after she was injured in a Russian cluster munition attack in Kharkiv.

They were not the only Smerch rockets fired at Kharkiv during a key 48-hour period in late February, as Russian troops battled to seize the city from Ukrainian forces.

And Ukraine is not the first battlefield where Russian forces have deployed cluster munitions with devastating effect against civilians.

For survivors of Syria's years-long civil war, the scenes in Kharkiv echo countless others staged by Russia after it intervened to help President Bashar al-Assad in 2015.

Through analysis of satellite imagery in collaboration with the Center for Information Resilience (CIR) and on-the-ground investigations, CNN identified the rocket artillery squad that launched the cluster munition attack on residential districts in the second Ukrainian city the day Kiriukhina and her neighbors were attacked.

That brigade reports directly to the same military leader, Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov, who oversaw one of the most brutal chapters of the Syrian war.

CNN traced 11 Smerch rockets that landed in Kharkiv on February 27 and 28 to Russia's 79th Rocket Artillery Brigade, based in Russia's Belgorod region.

That brigade reports directly to the leadership of the Russian Army's Western Military District (WMD), one of the Russian Army's five military districts, based in the western part of that country.

Multiple military experts told CNN that Zhuravlyov, the Russian equivalent of a theater commander in the US Army, is the only officer with the authority to order a Smerch rocket attack on his district.

As a high value weapon, he needs high level approval.

The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry have not responded to CNN's request for comment.

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Lessons learned from Syria

Alexander Zhuravlyov, 57, was commissioned as a Soviet officer in the 1980s when he served in the former Czechoslovakia with a group of Russian forces.

After the collapse of the USSR, he returned to Russia, initially serving with tank units.

Deployed to Syria three times, he first became the commander of Russian troops in the country during his second term in July 2016. Before taking office, Moscow was engaged in a bloody fight to capture eastern Aleppo controlled by the rebels, making steady advances against the armed opposition.

Zhuravlyov's leadership catalyzed the assault on eastern Aleppo.

After he took the reins, the Russian Army quickly intensified its attacks on the rebel-held territory and completed the siege of the densely populated city, demanding a large death toll and launching a tactic that has defined the intervention of Russia in Syria: besiege, starve, bomb and crush into submission.

His period of command also saw a dramatic increase in documented cluster munition attacks in Aleppo.

According to the Violations Documentation Center, which documents human rights violations in Syria, cluster munitions were used 137 times in Aleppo between September 10 and October 10, 2016, a 791% increase in the average number. of cluster munition attacks in the previous eight months.

In 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry denied the use of cluster munitions in Syria.

It was an escalation that aid groups tried to bring to the world's attention.

At the time, the then director of Save the Children in Syria, Sonia Khush, said in a statement: "There are young children with newly amputated limbs or with bags of pellets embedded in muscle tissue due to the use of these appalling and indiscriminate weapons." .

Drone video: Ukrainians strike down Russian military vehicles in Kharkiv 0:39

In Kharkiv, CNN spoke to dozens of eyewitnesses in several of the neighborhoods hit by 11 Smerch rocket attacks that occurred on February 27 and 28.

They remembered the death and destruction that the cluster bombs caused in their city.

The streets were littered with injuries, burning cars and broken glass.

An eyewitness said up to a dozen people were injured in his apartment building alone in a single Smerch rocket attack.

"I don't know what it was exactly, but it was all over the district. These little fragments that explode and spread dangerous shrapnel everywhere," said Yuriy Braiko, an IT software analyst who lives in Kharkiv.

"They create a lot of tiny shrapnel that gets into various places, windows and people."

Rocket debris seen in Kharkiv by CNN and scorch marks left by shells revealed the incoming direction of the attack, which CNN traced to Russia's Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border.

CNN visited a site where Ukrainian officials had collected large piles of detonated and unexploded ordnance.

Mark Hiznay, a weapons expert and associate director for weapons at Human Rights Watch, reviewed images from the site and said the photographs indicated that cluster munition attacks had occurred on a scale not seen in years.

"A lot of cluster munitions are being used on a scale that probably went beyond what we saw in southern Lebanon in 2006," Hiznay said, referring to the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, during which the Israeli army dropped some 4 million submunitions in southern Lebanon, according to the United Nations.

"It's not like the movies where you see the missile before the bomb drops. Suddenly you have 72 submunitions detonating on a football field," Hiznay said.

"So that's why people are literally cut in half by these things. You don't get a lot of burns. You don't get blast injuries. It's just nasty, bloody fragmentation."

Cluster munitions are prohibited under an international treaty, the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, transfer, production and stockpiling of the weapons.

The treaty cites the failure of many submunitions to explode on impact, leaving dangerous munitions in fields and urban areas that could kill or maim people.

Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Israel are among the countries that are not signatories to the treaty.

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But an attack of any kind that indiscriminately targets civilians, as revealed by CNN's on-the-ground investigation that occurred on February 27 and 28, would appear to be a war crime, according to several interviewed experts.

"Extrajudicial killings and shelling of civilians, which is neither a military necessity nor proportionate to the threat they face, is against the Geneva Conventions," said Philip Wasielewski, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

"And based on the Geneva Conventions standard of command responsibility, the general (Zhuravlyov) is just as guilty as anyone else in his chain of command."

"The wounds are the same" in both Russia and Syria

A doctor who treated the war-wounded in both conflicts has been struck by the similarities.

People arrived at the Kharkiv hospital covered in shrapnel, skin and muscle damage, amputations, open fractures and head trauma.

Syrian-American orthopedic surgeon Dr. Samer Attar, who worked in Aleppo while Zhuravlyov's forces laid siege to the city, traveled to Ukraine from his hometown of Chicago hoping to help Ukrainian doctors deal with the unknown tide of wounded traumatized war fighters.

Dr. Samer Attar treated cluster munition injuries in eastern Aleppo and traveled to Ukraine to treat those injured in Kharkiv.

"The injuries are the same," he told CNN.

Attar described the injuries he treated in Kharkiv and those he saw in Aleppo in 2016 as "the same".

"You can hear the air raid sirens, but everyone here has learned to stay still and steady and carry on," he said.

"They never stop out there and they never stop here doing their job."

In December 2016, rebels holed up in eastern Aleppo finally surrendered and Syrian government and Russian forces recaptured the territory.

A street in the rebel-held Salihin neighborhood of Aleppo is littered with rubble on September 11, 2016, after Russia targeted the residential area with cluster bombs.

With the end of the Battle of Aleppo, Zhuravlyov left the helm of the Russian army in Syria and returned to Russia.

He received the highest honors bestowed on a Russian officer - the Hero of the Russian Federation.

He was promoted twice the following year and became commander of the Western Military District, the same division that wreaked death and destruction in Kharkiv and other parts of Ukraine, shortly after his third stint in Syria in 2018.

"Zhuravlyov's results achieved in Syria were exactly what the Russians wanted, hence his reward with the main medal and the most important posts one can get," Russian military expert Wasielewski said.

"It's what Napoleon said: 'a general's reward is not a bigger store but a bigger command'."

Zhuravlyov later said in an interview that Syria had taught him the value of "military ingenuity" and that the lessons learned there were being integrated as an "organic component" of all Russian military training.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Zhuravlyov at the Moscow Kremlin on March 23, 2017.

Another Russian general who served in Syria alongside Zhuravlyov, Lieutenant General Aleksei Zavizion, was appointed Zhuravlyov's deputy in the Western Military District the same month Zhuravlyov took up his current post.

Just a year earlier, Zavizion had allegedly led a group of separatist fighters after they seized territory from Ukrainian government forces in the country's easternmost Donbas region, according to Ukraine's military intelligence.

Ukraine's military intelligence also accuses Zavizion of being behind multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) attacks on civilian areas in the Donbas region.

In 2017, Ukraine charged Zavizion with alleged war crimes.

CNN compared its findings on the two Russian generals to Ukrainian military intelligence, which confirmed that they accused the men of being responsible for apparent crimes against civilians in Kharkiv and elsewhere.

Neither Zhuravlyov nor Zavizion have been sanctioned by the international community.

"Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov should have been sanctioned for his actions in Syria," a prominent human rights attorney at the Payne Hicks Beach law firm, Matthew Ingham, told CNN.

"It's a shame there wasn't a stronger response to alleged war crimes at that stage, because that may have affected Putin's strategic calculations in Ukraine from the start."

Meanwhile, as Russia's invasion continues into its third month and the offensive in the country's east intensifies, bombs are raining down on Kharkiv and much of the city's inhabitants have left.

The facades of many apartment buildings have been demolished.

The remaining residents have been herded underground into sprawling encampments in the city's subway system.

After recovering from the Smerch rocket attack on February 28, Kiriukhina fled Kharkiv, hoping to erase the "horror movie" scenes from her mind.

Now, when out in public, he wears a beret to hide the scars from his injuries.

"I was in a good mood. The weather was nice. The sun was shining. No one would have thought that such a horror would swoop down in just a few seconds," he said.

"From the bottom of our hearts and souls we want punishment for these crimes. Somehow justice will prevail. But probably not soon," he said.

war in ukraine

Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2022-05-13

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