The impact of explosive weapons
on the delivery of humanitarian aid

A wide range of different security contexts affect the delivery of humanitarian aid. This blog page illustrates how explosive weapons affect the work of humanitarian agencies using selected case descriptions from 2015.

What we observed in 2015 at a glance:

• Explosive weapons affect humanitarian agencies’ ability to assist beneficiaries when they kill or injure staff and when they destroy humanitarian infrastructure and supplies.
• The risk of explosive weapons use affect how humanitarian agencies plan the delivery of aid in a complex balancing act between staff duty of care and meeting the needs of affected populations.
• Fears that humanitarian services are singled out for attacks, prevents some beneficiaries from seeking assistance.
• The general consequences of the destruction caused by explosive weapons makes provision of humanitarian aid more difficult as supplies and utilities are increasingly costly and difficult to provide.

Throughout 2015, Insecurity Insight through its Aid in Danger project, used this blog page to post selected events which illustrate the way in which explosive weapons affect the delivery of aid. The information for this blog can also be found in the The Aid Security Monthly News Brief, which provide the links to the original stories. The events highlighted here are only selection of all events that involved explosives and a small proportion of all information contained within the Security in Numbers Database (SiND). The SiND tracks all reported incidents that affect the delivery of humanitarian aid. Events that involved the use of explosives weapons is a subset of the total database. The events discussed on this blog are a selection of incidents reported in open sources throughout 2015. It is not a comprehensive list of open source reported events in the SiND and it does not include confidential information provided by humanitarian agencies, who pool confidential security information within the SiND.

Every month, the Aid in Danger project releases selected statistics form the Aid in Danger project. The following documents include information on explosive weapons:April 2016: Security measures; ; January 2016: Staff killed, injured and kidnapped; ; November 201: Perpetrators

A consultancy report to UNIDIR on the reverberating effects of explosive weapons in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals highlights a number of important impacts on humanitarian aid.

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining provides useful information on the technical characteristics of various explosive weapon systems. Characterisation of explosive weapons.

Some case descriptions are also published by Action On Armed Violence in the Monthly report on civilian casualties, which are included at the bottom of this page.

What are explosive weapons?

Explosive weapons cover a wide range of different types ranging from air-dropped bombs, air or ground launched artillery projectiles, missiles and rockets, mortars, and many different types of improvised explosive devices. Explosive weapons are used by State and non-State actors but almost every by police forces.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prohibited to directly target civilians and civilian objects. In an armed conflict, certain types of public infrastructure, such as transport and communication infrastructure, including bridges, railway lines and telephone infrastructure or broadcasting stations are acknowledged to be of military importance. Upon impact, explosive weapons create a zone of blast and fragmentation with the potential to kill, injure or damage anyone or anything within that zone even when they may not have been the target.

Selected cases and observations from events that were reported in open sources in 2015

The effect of explosive weapons use in conflict

During warfare, it is hard to deploy explosive weapons so accurately that only legitimate military targets are affected and humanitarian work can continue unhindered. In a several events, the deployment of explosive weapons against humanitarian infrastructure appeared deliberate.

The use of explosive weapons during conflict puts individual aid workers at a high risk. International staff members are usually evacuated at the outbreak of hostilities but national staff are exposed to the effects of explosive weapons during their working hours and as ordinary civilians after work. The unintended consequences of explosive weapons use are one of the leading causes of deaths and injuries among humanitarian workers. In 2015, international aid workers also died during air campaigns because they were held captive and the pre-strike surveillance failed to alert the military actor to their presence.

Medical infrastructure has been widely affected by damage from explosive weapons use in conflict. Other humanitarian infrastructure was also affected.

Individual humanitarian workers killed or injured by explosive weapons
Selected case descriptions from 2015

Caritas worker killed in Syria

On 7 April 2015, Safouh Al-Mosleh from Caritas Syria was killed when a shell fell on his house in Aleppo in Syria. His neighbourhood experienced heavy shelling in the days before his death and he evacuated his family. On the morning of 7 April, he looked after his elder parents and then returned to his neighbourhood to check his apartment. At that moment, a mortar struck, causing a huge fire from which he was unable to escape from.
The tragic death of Safouh Al-Mosleh illustrates the specific danger local humanitarian staff face during the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. They don’t just continue with their work, in the case of Safouh Al Mosleh shelter for vulnerable elderly people in Aleppo. They also deal with extreme difficulties of protecting their own families and housing when mortar shells hit the city every day. The sad death of Safouh Al Mosleh is a terrible loss to his family but also a difficult loss to Caritas who is one of the few agencies left in Syria trying against the odds the alleviate suffering. Caritas Press Statement

Safouh Al-Mosleh Safouh-Al-Mosleh

GOAL workers injured in Syria

29 March 2015, two GOAL workers were seriously injured during an air strike in northern Syria. One of the staff members is in a critical condition. The other will need extensive reconstructive surgery. A third staff member suffered non-life threatening injuries. All injured were Syrians, as typically the front line workers in conflict zones are national staff members. Read more Irish Mirror, Irish Times, Independent.


Al Qaeda captives killed at Afghan-Pakistan borderOn 23 April 2015, the United States announced that two previously-abducted aid workers had been accidentally killed in a drone strike on an al Qaeda compound close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on 15 January 2015. Warren Weinstein, a US national, was kidnapped in 2011. Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian, was held hostage since 2012.

The four week drone surveillance in the village of Wacha Dara in the Shawal Valley in the Waziristan carried out prior to the operation gave the US ‘high certainty’ that the people they watched were militants and confident that no civilians lived in the compound. Those analysing the impact of the strike on drone video feeds and satellite data were surprised when they saw six, instead of the expected four, bodies being removed from the rubble for burial. Ground intelligence was required to learn that two Westerns had been killed in the strike.

This incident shows that remote observation of who enters and leaves a building makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to know with sufficient certainty who will be inside a certain building. The use of explosive force following such surveillance poses great risks for humanitarian workers who depend for their protection on the ability of armed actors to use force discriminately and only against legitimate military targets.

Warren Weinstein

Warren Weinstein

Giovanni Lo Porto

Giovanni Lo Porto

ISIS captive killed in Syria Kyla Mueller, the “unknown female captive” of the Islamic State was killed on 6 February 2015. The young American woman moved to the Syrian border in December 2012 to work for aid agencies. Eight months later she accompanied a Syrian friend on a trip to Aleppo, where she interviewed patients at a Médécins Sans Frontières medical facility. Kyla was abducted by Islamic State (IS) militants when she was leaving the MSF hospital. 18 months into her captivity, her captors announced her death.
How did Kyla Mueller die? Her captors blamed her death on Jordanian airstrikes, circulating a photo of the building she was supposedly held in after it had been hit by shelling outside the town of Raqqa, a stronghold of Islamist militants. The Jordanian Air Force denied that the attack caused her death.

We will likely never know the truth. Her tragic death illustrates the indiscriminate nature of explosive weapons in populated areas, and the uncertainty that often follows an attack. This particular Jordanian Air Force strike hit roughly 20 buildings, which were described as a ‘weapon storage area.’ The US military indicated that the photo circulated by the Islamic State was among the facilities affected, but a White House spokesman claimed there was “no evidence of civilians in the target area prior to the coalition strike taking place.”

While anonymous experts examined photos of Kyla’s body, they could not determine the cause of death, or whether her injuries were consistent with being killed in the flattened building, as claimed by IS. It is impossible to confirm or deny that the air strike killed Kyla.

The use of explosive weapons may have inadvertently caused the death of a kidnapped civilian. Equally, IS may have used the airstrike as propaganda, exploiting the imprecise nature of explosive weapons and the fact that it is impossible to account for their impact with certainty. Her death is a tragic example of the difficulty in accurately determining the number and nature of casualties from explosive weapons and to predict and report their full impact.

Medical infrastructure hit

MSF hospitals targeted by air strikes During the month of October 2015, two MSF hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen and at least five health facilities in Syria were hit by air strikes. These events killed at least 55 people, among them patients, their relatives and 14 medical staff. The incidents also reduced the access to critical healthcare services for the period that the health facilities remained closed. In addition, the events risk further knock-on effects beyond the directly affected countries and the immediate present. The available information suggests that the health facilities were hit by targeted air strikes rather than collateral damaged from a nearby impact. This context affects the international community’s risk assessment for health care services during period of air delivered explosive weapons in present and future conflicts.

Humanitarian actors are particular concerned because it does not appear that insufficient communication between the healthcare providers and the conflict parities was at the origin of the decision to strike the health facilities. MSF stated that it informed all warring parties of the locations of its two hospital complexes. In Yemen, the roof of the hospital building in rebel-held Haydan District, Saada Province, Northern Yemen was clearly marked with its painted name and logo when it was hit on 26 October by Saudi-led military coalition air strikes. In Kunduz Afghanistan, the attack on 3 October continued for 30 minutes after they had contacted US officials informing them that they were under attack.

Humanitarian health care services are in jeopardy when users of air delivered explosives cannot be trusted to respect IHL and fail to take the necessary precautions not to target neutral and impartial healthcare providers. Once communication mechanisms have been exhausted, humanitarian agency’s natural response will be to reduce their presence. It is likely that the reverberating effects of explosive weapons use against hospitals will be felt in future conflicts. Their impact will extend beyond the boundaries of the countries where the bombs were dropped this month. It is likely that many people will be deprived of access to critical healthcare in areas under aerial bombardment because healthcare service providers will refrain from offering services.

Destroyed operating theatre, MSF hospital Kunduz

Destroyed operating theatre, MSF hospital Kunduz

Destruction at MSF Haydan hospital

Destruction at MSF Haydan hospital

MSF staff in the aftermath of the attack on the hospital

MSF staff in the aftermath of the attack on the hospital

Barrel bombs used in Syria

On 10 June, a barrel bomb exploded just outside the Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported medical centre in Aleppo damaging medical equipment and the pharmacy. The hospital’s post-operative room was knocked out of service.

On the evening of 15 June the Busra hospital in Dara’a governorate was destroyed after it was hit by ten barrel bombs. It was the only health facility providing neonatal care and dialysis services in Dara’a.

MSF reported that it knew of nine health structures attacked between May and June 2015 and stated that 40% of hospitals in East Aleppo were affected. Some specialized services became inaccessible.

Damage and destruction of health infrastructure drives up indirect conflict mortality because people needing medical care cannot access the help they require. The number of people who die in a conflict zones above the expected mortality rate is influenced by how badly the functioning of the health infrastructure is affected by violence.

Busra hospital, in Dara’a governorate, in the South, was destroyed after being hit by ten barrel bombs on 15 June 2015. Photo: MSF

Busra hospital, in Dara’a governorate, in the South, was destroyed after being hit by ten barrel bombs on 15 June 2015. Photo: MSF

Clinic in Ukraine hit by shellOn 4 February, a shell landed some 10 meters from an outpatient clinic in Donetsk, in the fought over territory in eastern Ukraine. It was midday. Dozens of people were queuing to see a doctor. A second shell followed seconds later. “There was a sudden explosion,” witness Dr Anna Kravtsova said. “A mortar round flew through the window.” Two people died on the spot, others were injured. Some died of their injuries later. The impact left a crater and shattered the windows in the multi-story building and destroyed an array of dentistry equipment in the dentistry unit.

The incident occurred as fighting between Separatists and Ukrainian forces intensified in the run-up to the Minsk talks. As typical for incidents that cause civilian incidents and destroy protected civilian medical infrastructure, both warring parties denied responsibility and blame the other side. Separatists accused the Ukrainian army of bombarding a densely populated civilian area with heavy artillery. Observers reported that government troops made tentative progress in retaking some Separatist controlled areas around Donetsk. Avoiding urban street battles, they attempted to push back their opponents with artillery fire. The Ukrainian government denies the use of artillery against residential areas and point to the surging violence of recent weeks as the pro-Russian rebels attempt to encircle the key town of Debaltseve, north-east of Donetsk. According to the Ukrainian government, separatist forces launched around 80 artillery or rocket attacks on Ukrainian positions and villages in the 24 hours preceding the incident that killed people outside the health facility.

Inside the Donetsk hospital after shell struck outside

Inside the Donetsk hospital

Dentistry unit in Donetsk hospital

Dentistry unit, hospital Donetsk

Hospital bombed in Sudan

On 20 January 2015 a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders /Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Sudan was bombed by the Sudanese Air Force (SAF). One MSF staff member and one patient were injured.While little physical damage was done to the hospital, the aid agency suspended operations to avoid putting staff and patients at risk. Approximately 150 patients and staff were in the hospital when 13 bombs were dropped by a SAF fighter jet . MSF believes that it was “a deliberate and targeted bombing on a civilian hospital structure and part of a strategy to terrorize the community.”

For the last four years, the SAF has been bombing civilians in the Nuba Mountains as part of the military campaign against rebels. Humanitarian agencies are restricted from accessing most of these areas, and health facilities were in short supply even before the 20 January attack. With the closure of the MSF hospital, civilians now have even less access to services to help with both violence and non-violence related healthcare.

The bombing additionally illustrates how fear of explosive weapon use often leads to the reduced presence of outsiders, meaning that the plight of civilians in South Kordofan will not be communicated to the wider world. The impact of explosive weapons can be devastating. Not only do they kill and main, but they result in reduced access to healthcare, humanitarian aid, and make the lives of those already in a perilous situation even worse.

MSF Farandalla hospital in South Kordofan

MSF Farandalla hospital in South Kordofan

The targeted use of IEDs against humanitarian workers

UNICEF workers killed

On 20 April 2015, four UNICEF workers were killed and five injured by a bomb placed under a seat in their minivan that picked them up from their guest house in Garowe, North Puntland. Two Somali security personnel also died. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bomb that was detonated by remote control. News24 (2), Reuters, (UNICEF, OutbreakNews). UN, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, News24 (1), The New York Times and TRF.

UN minivan after bomb exploded under a seat

UN minivan after bomb exploded under a seat

UN Convoy attacked in Mali On 24 November 2015, a civilian staff member of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was killed when the MINUSMA supply convoy hit an explosive device between the cities of Goundam and Timbuktu in Northern Mali. On 28 November, a mortar attack on the MINUSMA base in the town of Kidal, Northern Mali, killed three people inside the UN based and injured 20. The UN reacted by stating that these ‘attacks will not impede the determination of the United Nations’ and that ‘MINUSMA continues to strengthen measures against such threats.’

According to critical observers, UN security measures implemented to strengthen the UN resilience against attacks by non-state actors effect perceptions of the UN as a neutral and impartial actor. The UN has pursued a strategy of securing buildings since the Bagdad bombing in 2003. These measures are usually enhanced after each non-state actor attack. Critical observers describe these security measures as ‘bunkerisation’ and criticise that it forces UN staff to observe local realities through the window of circumscribed security measures. Where this is the case, the reverberating effects of non-state actors’ targeted explosive weapons use against the UN include triggering self-protecting measures that contribute to limiting the humanitarian space.

UN civilian convoy in Mali

UN civilian convoy in Mali


Senegalese Police patrolling the streets of Goa, Mali

Senegalese Police patrolling the streets of Goa, Mali

 The impact of IEDs on aid and humanitarian operations is discussed in this article by Christina Wille published in the Journal Crisis Response, Vol.12, Issue 2. December 2016.

Effects on humanitarian management and beneficiaries

Yemen March 2015

At the end of March 2015, violence escalated in Yemen, with devastating effects for humanitarians and those they assist. On 26 March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began bombing Houthi rebel-controlled areas in Yemen. That day, reports indicate a doctor died and was pulled from under the rubble of a damaged building .On 29 March, 40 people were killed in the Al-Mazraq IDP camp in north western province of Hajjah and the UN, INGOs, and foreign embassies evacuated over 200 expatriates from the country. Security management protocols used by humanitarian agencies include evacuations and help to prevent the deaths of international aid workers. National staff of local and international organisations however remain behind.

National staff of humanitarian agencies are civilians and bear the same risks as their neighbours and family members and all those affected when violence escalates or armed conflict begins. They continue the direct aid delivery while expatriates continue to oversee programmes and to maintain contact with funders from neighbouring countries (a security management approach known as “remote management”). As a result, air strikes disproportionately affect national staff and their protection is closely linked to the protection of civilians in general.

Read AOAV’s monthly reports on civilian casualties

December 2015

November 2015

October 2015

September 2015

August 2015

July 2015

June 2015

May 2015

April 2015

March 2015

February 2015

January 2015