The absence, to date, of mass death from hunger doesn’t mean that Russian forces are innocent of the war crime of starvation
The deputy mayor of Mariupol, Sergiy Orlov, describes people sheltering in basements trying to survive without food, medicine or a power supply, and drinking melted snow because the water has been cut off. In Chernihiv, March 16, a line of 10 civilians queuing for bread outside a grocery shop were killed by Russian troops. Ukrainian intelligence reports indiscriminate shelling and targeting of agricultural machinery, fields and grain stores; and civilians are being blocked from leaving besieged towns and cities or killed whilst fleeing. This is a playbook familiar to any monitoring similar starvation crimes in Syria, Yemen, Tigray or South Sudan.
A few very elderly Ukrainians will remember the forced starvation of the Holodomor of 1932-33, when a combination of brutally enforced collectivization and punitive confiscation of food killed about three million Ukrainians through the resulting famine. It was the occasion for Stalin’s infamous remark ‘if only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy; if millions die, that’s only statistics.’ He was wrong: every Ukrainian knows the story, deeply carved into their collective memory. After Ukrainian independence, monuments to the victims of famine were constructed in Kiev and Kharkhiv.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Boston Massachusetts
Catriona Murdoch is a partner at Global Rights Compliance, an international foundation specialising in international criminal, humanitarian, and human rights law