Two million flee Ukraine, those stuck struggle to find supplies

Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II has grown more severe as the war between Russia and Ukraine enters day 13. While 2 million people have fled Ukraine, others remain trapped and are struggling to get water, food, and supplies. 

Felipe Dana/AP
Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 8, 2022. Efforts to put in place cease-fires along humanitarian corridors have repeatedly failed amid Russian shelling.

Buses carried civilians out of one embattled Ukrainian city Tuesday and supplies toward another, as officials tried to move people away from a Russian onslaught and ease the dire humanitarian situation for those still stuck. But reports of renewed Russian attacks on the port of Mariupol threatened to again derail the efforts.

On the 13th day of the invasion, Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II grew even more severe, with United Nations officials reporting that 2 million people have now fled Ukraine.

Demands for ways to safely evacuate civilians have surged along with intensifying shelling by Russian forces, who have made significant advances in southern Ukraine but stalled in some other regions. Efforts to put in place cease-fires along humanitarian corridors have repeatedly failed amid Russian shelling.

Hours before a convoy rescued people from the northeastern city of Sumy, overnight strikes killed 21 people there, including two children, according to the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office. Since the invasion began, more than 400 civilian deaths have been recorded by the U.N. human rights office, which said the true number is much higher.

While Russian forces have made significant advances in southern Ukraine, they have stalled in other regions, and efforts to put in place cease-fires along humanitarian corridors have repeatedly failed amid Russian shelling.

That appeared again to be the case in the besieged city of Mariupol, where the deputy mayor Serhiy Orlov said Russia continued to pound “the places where people collect to give opportunity for evacuation.”

“So we cannot establish sustainable cease-fire and safety route at the moment,’’ Mr. Orlov told the BBC, saying some routes of the city were blocked, others mined.

Mariupol has been without water, heat, sanitary systems, or phones for several days, one of the most desperate scenes of the nearly two-week-old war. An estimated 200,000 people – nearly half the population of 430,000 – hope to flee the city.

There have been repeated attempts to establish a humanitarian corridor to ease the suffering, and buses emblazoned with red cross symbols carrying water, basic food staples, and medicines moved toward the port on Tuesday. Ukrainian officials said the vehicles would then ferry civilians out of the city, as agreed with the Russians.

But soon after officials announced that buses were en route, the Ukrainian president’s office said it had been informed of shelling on the escape route. It is unclear whether the supply convoy made it to Mariupol – or whether civilians will freely board the buses if the shelling continues.

Mr. Orlov also cast doubt on the evacuations, telling the BBC that Russian forces continued to bombard areas where people were trying to gather. He said some roads were blocked, others were mined.

“This morning the situation did not change,’’ Mr. Orlov told the BBC. “So we still have ... a city in blockade.’’

Russia is fighting hard for control of the port, which would ensure a land route to the Crimean Peninsula that it annexed in 2014. President Vladimir Putin’s overall goals are not clear, but Western officials believe he is seeking to install a government friendly to him in Kyiv, part of efforts to pull the Western-leaning democracy back into Russia’s orbit.

In addition to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ukraine, the fighting and ensuing Western sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia have sent a shock wave through the global economy. Energy prices have surged worldwide, stocks have plummeted, and the food supply for many who rely on crops farmed in the fertile Black Sea region has been threatened.

In a further effort to punish Russia, U.S. President Joe Biden decided to ban Russian oil imports, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter before an announcement. Meanwhile, Shell announced Tuesday it would stop buying oil and natural gas from it.

Following the shelling in Sumy, a convoy of buses packed with people moved along a snowy road on Tuesday, according to video from the Ukrainian communications agency. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said they were headed southwest to the Ukrainian city of Poltava, and included students from India and China.

Oleksiy Kuleba, the governor of the Kyiv region, said Ukraine was also making arrangements to get people out of the suburb of Irpin, although it was not clear if that would be along one of the five official corridors the Russians promised earlier.

There were few signs, in fact, those routes were actually being used, beyond the evacuation from Sumy. While the convoy headed to Mariupol initially appeared to also be part of an agreement between the sides, reports of the shelling called that into question. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said, “Russian troops can simply shoot on this transport on the way.”

Ukrainian officials had pushed back on Russia’s proposed evacuation routes, since several would funnel people into Russia or its ally Belarus, which served as a launch pad for the invasion. They have called instead for corridors allowing people to head to western parts of Ukraine not under attack.

“Ukraine has not given permission for evacuation to Russia, we did not agree on those routes. The corridors to Russia have not been agreed upon with the Red Cross either,” said Ms. Vereschchuk.

Mr. Zelenskyy called Tuesday for the expansion of humanitarian corridors, and more support from the Red Cross.

In a video address from an undisclosed location, Mr. Zelenskyy said a child died of dehydration in Mariupol, in a sign of how desperate the city’s population has become.

The president again pleaded for air support from Western countries. A top United States’ official said multiple countries were discussing whether to provide warplanes to Ukraine.

Later Tuesday, Mr. Zelenskyy released a selfie video of himself standing near the presidential offices in Kyiv, with piles of sandbags, a snow-dusted fir tree, and a few cars in the background. It was the second video in 24 hours showing him near the country’s seat of power, an apparent bid to dispel any doubts over his whereabouts.

In a soft voice, he said: “Snow fell. It’s that kind of springtime. You see, it’s that kind of wartime, that kind of springtime. Harsh. But we will win.”

Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces said in a statement Tuesday that Ukrainian forces are continuing defense operations in the suburbs of Mariupol.

The general staff said “demoralized” Russian forces are engaging in looting in places they have occupied, commandeering civilian buildings like farm hangars for military equipment, and are setting up firing positions in populated areas. The claims could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian defense forces were also involved in operations in Chernihiv and the outskirts of Kyiv, the general staff said.

In Kyiv, soldiers and volunteers have built hundreds of checkpoints to protect the city of nearly 4 million, often using sandbags, stacked tires, and spiked cables. Some barricades looked significant, with heavy concrete slabs and sandbags piled more than two stories high, while others appeared more haphazard, with hundreds of books used to weigh down stacks of tires.

“Every house, every street, every checkpoint, we will fight to the death if necessary,” said Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

Editor’s note: Check out the Monitor’s comprehensive Ukraine coverage from correspondents in Ukraine, Europe, the United States, and beyond on our Ukraine page.

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