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An Anatomy of a Mortar Attack: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

16.1.1 – Number of direct civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons, disaggregated by gender and age

"Mortar fire" by The U.S. Army is licensed with CC BY 2.0.
“Mortar fire” by The U.S. Army. CC BY 2.0.

Case study 

According to evidence provided for the ICC trial, 40 people were killed and 60 injured. These figures appear to be based on the evidence provided by the Director of Abobo Sud Hospital who said that “about 40 bodies and about 50 wounded were received at the hospital on the day of the shelling”. Of these casualties, 15 women were reported to have been killed, two children under 10 years old, and a 5-month old child. At least one elderly person was reported as injured, having lost both her legs.

Conversations with residents during AOAV’s fieldwork in 2021 revealed that the real number of casualties is likely to have been higher, given that not everyone who was injured would have gone to hospital due to the insecurity of moving through Abobo. As Alpha, an Abobo resident at the time told AOAV: “In Abobo at one point in the war, we were afraid to go to the hospital because you could lose your life if the forces there found you to be a rebel”.    

The injuries inflicted by the mortar were particularly horrific. Eyewitnesses interviewed by AOAV described body parts strewn across the ground. This was corroborated by statements from Human Rights Watch’s interviewees: “Some of the wounds people had were so horrible we couldn’t even look at them. People had body parts that were blown off, others were completely deformed.”

Global

Between 2011 and 2020, 9,697 civilians were injured and 3,688 were killed in mortar attacks. This means for every mortar attack there was an average of 6.2 civilian injuries and 2.3 civilian deaths. 4.6% of civilian casualties from mortar attacks were women and 9.5% were children. Given the progressive global urbanisation of conflict and the frequency with which mortar attacks occur in populated areas, the real percentage of female and child casualties is likely to be much higher. Indeed, journalistic sources often report that women and children are often “among the casualties” and rarely identify these groups with any greater specificity.   

Mortar attacks frequently result in double and even triple figure civilian casualties. An often-cited example is when a single round from a 120-mm mortar fired on a market in Sarajevo killed 68 people and injured 144 in 1994. Over the past decade, AOAV recorded 404 incidents of mortar use which resulted in 10 or more civilian casualties. 

Gender breakdown of casualties from mortar attacks (2011-2020). Source: AOAV’s EVM. 

16.2.1 – Number of indirect civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons, disaggregated by gender and age 

Case study 

Attributing indirect deaths and injuries to a single occurrence of explosive violence is inherently difficult. UNIDIR defines this indicator as those killed or injured ‘from a loss of access to essential goods and services as a consequence of explosive weapons use’. In the case of the Abobo shelling, the number of indirect casualties remains undetermined. AOAV collected anecdotal evidence that the weakened health system did result in indirect casualties from the attack. An interviewee and Abobo resident, Aboulaye, told AOAV that on 17 March his father had gone to the courtyard to pray when he was hit by a piece of mortar fragment, suffering wounds to his chest and carotid artery. Aboulaye’s father died four years later from his injuries, and it was assumed that timely medical care could have prevented his death. 

Global

The wide area effects of mortars, with fragmentation dispersing up to 1,800m2 frequently results in disruption to essential services and goods, which, as expected, results in indirect and otherwise preventable deaths. However, mortar attacks in the past decade have predominantly been recorded within the context of wider conflicts, and finding concrete evidence that preventable death or injury was the result of a mortar attack, rather than conflict more widely, creates methodological barriers. Evidence to directly attribute indirect death or injury to this weapon type is scarce.

The Geneva Declaration Secretariat once estimated that for every direct death in conflict there are four indirect deaths. This was in 2008. Since then, we have witnessed the increased urbanization of war and sweeping destruction of civilian infrastructure from explosive weapons – the real number of indirect deaths is likely to be much higher.   

Report continues:

Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack