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Two-Thirds of Ukrainian Civilians Witnessed Explosive Violence Since War Began

The impact of witnessing deadly violence is affecting the mental health of millions of Ukrainians, reports Sian Norris

Police inspect the aftermath of a Russian attack in front of an apartment building in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Vladyslav Musiienko/UPI/Alamy

Two-Thirds of Ukrainian Civilians Witnessed Explosive Violence Since War Began

The impact of witnessing deadly violence is affecting the mental health of millions of Ukrainians, reports Sian Norris

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More than two-thirds (67%) of Ukrainian civilians have witnessed explosive violence since Russia’s invasion of the country in February, according to new research from the International Blast Injury Research Network (IBRN).

The preliminary data, shared with Byline Times, is based on a survey of more than 10,000 respondents. It shows the extent to which Ukrainian people have been impacted by Russia’s invasion, even if they are not themselves on the frontline of the conflict. 

“Most of us will never witness such powerful explosions so close to home,” Dr Ken Brackstone, Research Fellow at the Clinical Informatics Research Unit, University of Southampton told Byline Times. “The deafening sounds and shockwaves of nearby blasts and explosions must be truly terrifying to eyewitnesses”.

Brackstone was one of three lead authors of the research which looked at a range of issues affecting people living through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The survey revealed how those who had witnessed a blast or explosion were more likely to report poorer mental health – including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Respondents who reported witnessing a blast or explosion were 2.16 times more likely to report flashbacks – with some enduring daily symptoms – than those who had not been close to explosive violence. They were also 1.72 more likely to experience nightmares, and 1.42 times more likely to have frequent episodes of nervousness and anxiety.

“These links with poor mental health were stronger than having a chronic disease, having caring responsibilities, or being a refugee in a different country,” said Brackstone. 

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Part of the distress comes from not knowing if they are witnessing the deaths of people in an exploded building, and the helplessness that comes with that. 

“Our research suggests that people who may have witnessed a blast or explosion cannot be ignored,” said Brackstone. “The memory of a blast/explosion – the sights, sounds, and feelings involved in the experience – must be difficult to repress or ignore. Further, the unknown as to whether there were people in targeted buildings must feel extremely distressing”. 

Research published by the World Health Organisation in 2019 estimated that one in five people living in warzones have a mental health condition – higher than a previous estimate that put the number at one in 14. These conditions include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In about 9% of the population, the mental disorder is considered to be “moderate to severe”. 

At the same time, those struggling with mental health disorders can find it difficult to access treatment or support in a warzone. 

“Mental health care must be prioritised in countries affected by conflict, not least for the well-established links between mental health, functioning, and country development,” WHO concluded. 

Russian-Led AttacksMore Deadly for Civilians

Sian Norris

Civilian Casualties 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 there have been 5,115 civilian casualties from explosive violence – as reported in English language media – with 2,265 civilians killed and a further 2,849 injured, according to data from the charity Action On Armed Violence (AOAV).

Nearly all (96%) of civilians killed by explosive violence since February this year have died in populated areas, meaning civilians are also more at risk of witnessing these attacks and their aftermath. 

On 9 July, a Russian rocket struck a residential building in Chasiv Yar, in the city of Kharkiv, killing 34 people including a child. Just days earlier, on 27 June, a Russian attack on a shopping centre in Kremenchuk, Central Ukraine, killed at least 18 people and injured dozens more. 

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas in the early weeks of the war was so intense, that Human Rights Watch found that four air and ground-launched attacks on the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv during March were in clear violation of the laws of war. They included the bombing of an apartment complex that killed 47 civilians, an attack that killed at least 17 people queuing for food outside a supermarket, and two attacks that damaged hospitals. 

“The current conflict in Ukraine is marked by the use of wide-area impact explosive weapons in towns and cities,” said Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV. “And when such weapons have been used in Ukraine’s populated areas, AOAV’s analysis of English language media reporting of the war has shown that over 90% of those killed or injured have been civilians. This is more than just a one-off. This is a systemic and targeted attack on Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces: a war crime on a national level”. 

This article was updated at 12.45pm on 14 July to include the International Blast Injury Research Network as one of the organisations gathering this data

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.


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