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An Anatomy of a Mortar Attack: Sustainable Cities and Communities

SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities

11.1.1 – Number or proportion of housing or shelter damaged or destroyed by explosive weapons

Case study 

At least three houses were destroyed in the attack on Abobo. One witness described the damage done to a house: “a house with a gaping hole in the roof. Gravel littered the bed and pieces of the roof collected were stored in the yard.”

Commercial property was also targeted. AOAV was told that the two shells that landed on Siaka Kone market destroyed 50% of its stores. Today, as in 2011, the market at Siaka Kone consists of temporary structures made from materials such as wood, plastic, and corrugated iron (see Figure 6). Such precarious structures would be easily destroyed when caught in direct fire of a mortar and severely damaged by fragmentation, depending on their distance from the point of detonation. Because these are temporary structures, no record was made of the number destroyed in the attack. In Abobo there were no high-rise buildings or any obstacles in the probable direction of the mortar fire.

Temporary structures at Siaka Kone market. Source: Verity Hubbard 2021.

Global 

In the last decade, 76% of mortar attacks took place in populated areas, 30% of these in urban residential locations. In 16% of cases damage to the physical location was explicitly reported, though the real figure is likely to be much higher due to the predisposition of journalistic sources to focus on casualty reporting, rather than physical damage. Given the wide area effects of mortars and the high proportion of mortar attacks in populated areas, destruction to housing and shelter is almost inevitable. 

Location of global mortar attacks when casualties are reported (2011-2020). Source: AOAV’s EVM. 
Mortar shells fired on 17 March 2011 destroyed the house that once stood here. Source: Verity Hubbard, 2021.

11.1.2- Number or proportion of cultural property damaged or destroyed by explosive weapons

Case study 

AOAV interviews revealed that the walls of a mosque near the SOS Children’s Village was damaged, as interviewees described a “huge hole in the large gate of the mosque [and] impacts on the walls of the mosque”. Religious based violence, particularly directed at Ivorian Muslims, was a feature of the conflict.

Global 

There is currently no comprehensive global source documenting damage to cultural property by explosive weapons. AOAV’s EVM records mortar attacks on entertainment venues and places of worship, which amount to 50 over the past decade (22 and 28 respectively), representing 3.2% of global incidents of mortar use. In 2019, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that since 2011, 124 churches have been damaged and destroyed, predominantly by mortar and rocket fire. 

Mosque at Siaka Kone market. Source: Verity Hubbard 2021.  
Mosque at Siaka Kone market. Source: Verity Hubbard 2021.  

11.1.3 – Number or proportion of service plants and installations damaged or destroyed by explosive weapons

Case study 

There were no service plants or installations recorded as damaged or destroyed by the mortar attacks on Abobo. 

Global 

There are a large number of mortar incidents to draw on where service plants and installations have been compromised – often with longstanding environmental effects. Mortar shelling of industrial facilities in eastern Ukraine has caused significant environmental damage, with chemical spills contaminating large swathes of the surrounding areas. In May 2015 the OSCE reported that a coke-chemical plant in Avdiivka was hit by 45 artillery and mortar rounds, creating fires and an ammonium leak.

11.1.4 – Proportion of transport network damaged or destroyed by explosive weapons

Case study 

Cratering in Abobo’s roads was recorded. However, the extent to which this disrupted the transport network cannot be discerned. During the conflict, Abobo was largely cut off from the rest of Abidjan. Journalist Seyi Rhodes, in his evidence for the ICC trial, told the court: “We tried on numerous occasions to get into Abobo. I remember that our office back in London were quite keen for us to attempt to get there, to speak to people there. But we never did manage to get in. The army checkpoints always stopped us at the very last moment really.” He described, “makeshift barriers in the road, sometimes with tyres and large bits of wood, just to slow cars down”. A news report dated a week after the shelling confirmed that the transport system in Abobo had almost collapsed, taxis had stopped running because of insecurity. “Nothing works anymore. Shops, transport are stopped”.

Arguably, the disruption to transport was short-term. By July 2011, four months after the conflict ended, plans for new public transport infrastructure in Abobo were coming to fruition in the form of Abobo’s Anonkoua-Kouté International Bus Station.

Global 

Between 2011 and 2020, 63 mortar attacks on roads and transport related infrastructure were recorded, accounting for 4% of global incidents of mortar use and resulting in 491 civilian casualties. 

11.2.1 – Number or proportion of key services disrupted, including water, wastewater and solid waste management, electricity, transport networks, and communications

Boutiques et magasins fermés à double tour. Rues presque désertes. Des endroits autrefois bondés de monde, présentant un visage de cimetière. Abobo vit aujourd’hui dans l’angoisse et la peur.
(Shops and stores are double locked. Roads are almost all deserted. Places once crowded with people now present the face of a cemetery. Abobo lives today in anguish and fear.).

Case study 

Generally, the district has irregular access to electricity with frequent power cuts, making it difficult to pinpoint the single use effect of an explosive weapon. Journalistic sources reported that water and electricity cuts were reported in the days following the attack on 17 March. This seems to contradict the testimony of two Abobo residents interviewed by AOAV who experienced no disruptions to power or water. However, the district of Abobo is 90 km2 so we can assume that key services were disrupted in some areas but not others. 

The shelling of Siaka Kone Market disrupted Abobo’s increasingly precarious food supply. Alpha, an Abobo resident interviewed by AOAV, said that people were so desperate for food that they went to the homes of displaced people who had fled to take the food that they had left. Another Abobo resident in a report dated a week after the attack said that “Eating twice a day is now a real luxury in Abobo. The food supplies are in the process of finishing”. AOAV was unable to decisively attribute disruptions to the food supply to the 17 March attack.

Global 

Global data on mortar harm to key services is not collected, so this indicator must be accessed on a case-by-case basis. The OSCE reported on access to water in conflict‐affected areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, observing decreased functionality of essential water pumps due to power shortages caused by the shelling of electrical systems which power the water pumps. In one notable example, the monitoring mission spoke with residents of Makarove who reported continuous shelling during the previous night and stated that the village had been without electricity and piped water supply for more than a week. 

11.3

1 – Number or proportion of population displaced, disaggregated by gender and age

2 – Number of deaths, missing persons and persons affected by explosive weapons per 100,000 population, disaggregated by gender and age

Case study 

Articles published less than a week after the 17 March attack reported an exodus from Abobo by local residents, prompted by the heavy shelling. Anecdotal evidence from AOAV’s interviewees confirmed that the attack led many to flee Abobo. Food insecurity and the inability for Abobo residents to buy other supplies – feasibly heightened by the shelling of Siaka Kone market – was cited as one of the drivers of displacement. 

“I can say that 25% of the population [of Abobo] had left and the rest could not leave Abobo because roadblocks of the armed forces and militias were wandering in all the major exits of Abobo.”- AOAV interview with former Gendarmerie officer.   

The UN reported that during the conflict some 300,000 people were displaced in Abidjan, the majority of them were residents of Abobo. 45,000 were displaced in the west of the country and over 75,000 others had fled across the border to Liberia. The UN noted that: “widespread damage to homes and infrastructures, the remaining insecurity and the inability of the State to provide basic social services such as health and education pose a challenge to the return process and Côte d’Ivoire could face a protracted displacement situation.”

At least 40 people were killed in the attack, but there were no reports of missing persons following the event. ‘Persons affected’ is more difficult to ascertain. UNIDIR defines this as those ‘who have suffered injury, illness or other health effects; who have been evacuated, displaced or relocated; or have suffered direct damage to their livelihoods or their economic, physical, social, cultural or environmental assets’. Given this definition, there would have been very few inhabitants of Abobo who had not been in some way affected by the events of 17 March. Fear, anxiety, and the destruction of the fabric of Abobo’s community were all raised in AOAV’s interviews. 

Global 

Explosive violence is the primary driver of conflict-driven displacement. In populated areas explosive weapons destroy civilian infrastructure, leaving families without shelter, damaging essential services and resulting in socio-economic deprivation.

The majority of cases recorded by AOAV of mortar use in the past decade occurred within the context of wider conflict. Therefore, it is difficult to accurately determine the individual role of this weapon type in causing displacement. In Syria – the country worst affected by mortar attacks in the last decade – there are currently 6.7 million IDPs and 6.6 million refugees, but we cannot realistically determine the extent to which these individuals have been driven from their homes by the threat of mortar attacks, given that airstrikes and rocket attacks have been a constant feature of the conflict. Certainly, the use of mortars increased the threat faced by civilians close to conflict, but they are merely one component in a much larger web of conflict-related threats. 

Other, more conclusive evidence can be found in the Philippines, where mortar shelling has been causally linked to civilian displacement. UNHCR reported that between 18-21 March 2021, 46,735 people were displaced from several municipalities in Maguindanao province as a result of a major mortar shelling attack from Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Report continues:

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