A convoy attempting to help the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol has been forced to turn back, leaving the besieged city’s most vulnerable trapped.
An International Committee of the Red Cross team comprising three vehicles and nine personnel left Zaporizhzhia on Friday morning for a 200km journey to Russian-controlled Berdyansk, where it was to meet 30 evacuation buses.
Ukraine and Russia had agreed “in principle” to allow the safe passage of civilians from Mariupol on Friday. Ukraine’s state emergency services would drive the buses, with the ICRC vehicles acting as escort taking the lead and bringing up the rear, to collect civilians from Mariupol, the target of fierce Russian shelling.
But the vehicles “had to return to Zaporizhzhia after arrangements and conditions made it impossible to proceed”, the ICRC said on Friday afternoon.
The convoy would make a second attempt on Saturday, the ICRC added.
The ICRC told the Financial Times: “The challenges we’re having around Mariupol show how important it is for all the details of safe-passage operations to be clearly agreed upon and shared throughout the chains of command. It’s imperative that these operations unfold in a safe way for all.”
Ukrainian government officials have said 100,000 civilians, including the elderly, disabled people and children, are in need of urgent evacuation from the city that has borne the brunt of Russian attacks.
Ulyana Tokareva, a Mariupol native and head of the council of women of the Donetsk region, who is helping to evacuate family, friends and colleagues, described the devastating siege conditions that civilians are having to endure.
“We know for sure from witnesses that the city is being shelled and looted by the Russian military, there is no medicine, people are suffering from hunger, lack of drinking water,” Tokareva said.
“There are very few surviving houses in the city. My house is also destroyed, as are the houses of almost all my acquaintances. All of us who are already safe in the territory controlled by the government of Ukraine are paralysed by fear, because we cannot help our loved ones in Mariupol.”
She added: “Witnesses who leave the city by all means say that everything Ukrainian is perceived by Russians with special hatred, even the desire to go to Zaporizhzhia, and not to the occupied Donetsk. Therefore, only the ICRC and similar organisations with a neutral status can help here.”
Ukrainian state officials have insisted on an ICRC presence along the evacuation route to deter direct fire from Russian forces.
Tetіana Lomakina, adviser-representative of the president of Ukraine, who co-ordinates and leads on humanitarian corridors, said: “[There] must be ICRC personnel, their vehicles, their humanitarian aid, their flags and symbols that show that this is a humanitarian mission.”
The ICRC said the inclusion of its vehicles was to “put a humanitarian marker on this planned movement of people, giving the convoy additional protection and reminding all sides of the civilian, humanitarian nature of the operation”.
However, raising concerns over Russia’s commitment to the agreement to evacuate civilians, the governor of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region said on Friday that Russia was not fulfilling its “agreements and promises”.
According to governor Pavlo Kyrylenko: “The humanitarian corridor . . . is essentially not operational.”
Joanne Mariner, director of crisis response at Amnesty International, emphasised the conditions necessary for the safe passage of civilians.
“For the corridor to function properly — to actually allow civilians to safely escape — the warring parties need to comply with their agreements to not to fire in and around the escape path,” Mariner said.
“In other words, they may need to forgo some transient military advantage to allow these escapes to occur. This is the true test: not whether such corridors are agreed to in principle but whether the parties actually respect them in practice.”
Human rights defenders have continued to express concern over Russia’s commitment to implementing the agreement and allowing civilians to escape.
Lyudmila Denisova, a Ukrainian human rights worker, said: “Russian forces have not let civilians out of Mariupol since Thursday, in another failed attempt. The occupants are trying to establish full control over Mariupol.”
Tokareva, who has worked on evacuating civilians from Donetsk since 2014, emphasised that the civilians trapped in Mariupol were the most vulnerable.
“The people who are currently stuck in Mariupol are those who can’t walk — the elderly, the wounded, people with disabilities or health problems, those who care for such relatives,” she said.
“And without outside help, they will not get out on their own, even to the city limits.”