The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is attempting another evacuation of the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol after similar efforts failed earlier in the week. The strategic port city has become a humanitarian disaster in the last five weeks of fighting, with dwindling food and medical supplies, no electricity, heating or clean water, and no safe humanitarian corridor for civilians to flee.
“The ICRC team left Zaporizhia this morning,” an ICRC spokesman told Vox via email on Saturday. “They are spending the night on the way to Mariupol and have yet to reach the city.” The spokesman did not elaborate on the conditions that led to the failure of Friday’s evacuation attempt.
The ICRC’s role in the evacuation effort was to escort humanitarian convoys from Mariupol to Zaporizhia, indicating that the vehicles were civilian and not military targets; Friday’s mission was to escort about 54 buses carrying evacuees, as well as civilians in private vehicles. However, the terms of the ceasefire were unclear on Thursday, and some buses in the convoy came under fire Thursday afternoon as they approached the city of Berdyansk, according to Tetiana Ignatenkova, a spokeswoman for the Donetsk regional administration.
Some Mariupol residents managed to leave in a private car and flee to the Zaporizhia region, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Veryshuk, and Presidential Advisor Kyrylo Tymoshenko reported that around 3,000 people were evacuated from the region, according to the New York Times on Friday had fled the city. According to Veryschuk, humanitarian routes from seven areas, including Mariupol, have been set up for Saturday’s evacuation attempts.
Ukrainian officials report that 5,000 Mariupol civilians have been killed in the conflict so far, according to Reuters, and the Washington Post reports that 100,000 people are still trapped in the besieged city. Large-scale evacuation attempts failed both on Friday and in early March because no safe escape route could be found; An ICRC team of three vehicles and nine staff arriving from Zaporizhzhia, some 125 miles from Mariupol, to facilitate the evacuation had to turn back due to “impossible” conditions, according to a statement. The statement did not go into detail about the terms, only saying that for the success of the humanitarian mission “it is crucial that the parties respect the agreements and provide the necessary conditions and security guarantees.”
Even the use of so-called “green” or humanitarian corridors puts evacuees at risk; Although the routes are said to be safe, “there were times when tanks fired on civilian vehicles trying to leave the city,” Oleksandr Lysenko, the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Sumy, said in a panel discussion with journalists in March. His claims are not isolated; A number of similar incidents have been reported, including the death of a family from Russian shelling as they tried to flee the town of Irpin.
Ukraine and the Kremlin agreed on a humanitarian truce on Thursday, but US officials noted that Russian airstrikes continued in the capital Kyiv and Mariupol in the 24 hours before the truce, according to The Washington Post. During that time, civilians should be able to leave safely and aid groups should be able to deliver essential humanitarian aid to Mariupol, which has been surrounded by Russian troops and cut off from supplies for weeks.
Conditions in Mariupol make it difficult for civilians to get out – or for aid to come in
Despite sustained, intense Russian shelling and bombing that has devastated Mariupol, Ukrainian forces have struggled for control of the city even as Russian troops surrounded them. Meanwhile, efforts to negotiate a permanent ceasefire to allow civilians to evacuate the besieged city have repeatedly failed, and despite Russia’s slow withdrawal from Kyiv and other northern areas, Mariupol remains an active conflict zone. According to the Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, this should remain the case for the foreseeable future. “We must rid ourselves of illusions: we face difficult battles in the south, Mariupol, for the east of Ukraine,” he said in a nationwide televised address on Saturday, noting that those left in Mariupol will continue to suffer, especially if Der Evacuation attempt on Saturday is unsuccessful.
Conditions in Mariupol had already deteriorated significantly by mid-March; Infrastructure that provided drinking water had been destroyed and aid workers from Mèdecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that residents were looking for sources of drinking water – after boiling it over a wood fire as the heat and electricity had also been shut off.
Harrowing account by a @MSF Employee in Mariupol, where electricity, heating and internet are out. Says no drinking water or medicine.
“People who have been killed and injured and are just lying on the ground and neighbors who are just digging the hole in the ground and sticking their bodies in it.” pic.twitter.com/2E2DxBzG3X
— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) March 12, 2022
Serhiy Orlov, Mariupol’s deputy mayor, noted in March that the city was already critically running out of medical supplies such as insulin, as well as food, fuel and warm clothing. “Let me be clear… we have the total destruction of the city of Mariupol,” he said at the time.
The fragile infrastructure of cities like Mariupol means that damage to any part of it – say a water main – could affect thousands of people’s access to clean drinking water, heat or electricity. But attacking this type of civilian infrastructure is a feature of Russia’s urban warfare, Rita Konaev, deputy director of analysis at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and New Technologies, told Vox in March.
“The Russian approach to urban warfare places a very strong emphasis on preparing and preparing the ground for any type of ground operation with this kind of aerial destruction. It’s meant to break morale, it’s meant to cause significant damage to cities’ infrastructure, it’s meant to cause high levels of displacement from cities,” she said.
Statements from both the ICRC and the United Nations on Thursday underscored the dire conditions in Mariupol and the urgent and immediate need to get humanitarian supplies to the population. “Despite extensive efforts and continued cooperation with the parties to the conflict, we and our partners have still not been able to reach areas where people urgently need assistance, including Mariupol, Kherson and Chernihiv,” UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters on Thursday. The ICRC expressed a similar urgency in its statement: “It is extremely important that this operation takes place. The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”
Russia will not give up Mariupol so easily
Although peace talks between Russia and Ukraine resumed on Friday, there is little sign that Russia will pull out of Mariupol, a city it sees as crucial to its control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — parts of which Russia recognized as independent breakaway republics shortly before invading Ukraine.
Now that the Russian military appears unable to capture Kyiv, the Kremlin appears to be turning its attention back to the southeast — specifically Mariupol. Russian control of the city would connect Donetsk and Luhansk and cut off the rest of Ukraine from the Sea of Azov, which could cause serious ongoing economic difficulties for Ukraine, since Mariupol and other port cities are grain export centers.
Ukrainian troops have refused to surrender Mariupol, locking Russian troops in a difficult urban battle that prevents them from reinforcing Russian units elsewhere; If Russia captured the city, it would free these forces for other campaigns.
But the capture of Mariupol, which has held out so fiercely despite weeks of near-continuous bombardment, would also boost Russian troops and public morale in an otherwise hugely disappointing campaign.
“Putin wants to get the city regardless of the losses and damage,” Orlov said. “The city is taken back to the Middle Ages by the Russians. People can only cook by the fire, and mothers and newborn children are given nothing to eat. This is genocide against UkraineS.”