Fresh efforts underway to evacuate civilians in besieged Mariupol – if ceasefire holds

ICRC’s trucks delivering supplies in Ukraine (Credit: ICRC)

Renewed efforts are underway to evacuate civilians trapped by Russian forces in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) said on Thursday – provided that a fragile ceasefire holds. 

The evacuation is planned to take place on Friday, the humanitarian aid organisation said, urging all parties to agree on the exact terms, including the route and the start time of the operation.

“Our team is on standby now in Zaporizhzhia, with the hope that this can happen tomorrow, but we will need ceasefires to hold and safety guarantees for this to work,” a spokesperson said.

“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place. The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk earlier confirmed that a convoy of 45 buses were on their way to the port city after Russia agreed to open a humanitarian corridor, allowing people to travel westwards to the city of Zaporizhzhia.

Around 160,000 residents remain trapped in Mariupol after weeks of bombardment and several failed attempts to guarantee a safe route to safety.

Humanitarian aid groups have been unable to gain access and have repeatedly called for access to be able to deliver food, water and medical supplies.

Lucile Marbeau, an ICRC staff member present with the teams preparing the operation, said: “We have just arrived in Zaporizhzhia. We're here because really, we hope to be able to facilitate safe passage for civilians desperately wanting to flee Mariupol.

“We are also here with two trucks of assistance, hoping that we can get that assistance in. In these trucks, there is food, medicine, relief items for those civilians who decide to stay in Mariupol and who will need to be both protected and to have humanitarian aid.”

Ukrainian associations call on ICRC to step up activities

The ICRC has made repeated appeals for access, and safe passage to be granted to civilians in Mariupol. It has also called to be informed of prisoners of war and granted access to visit them, and for the dignified treatment of the dead so they can be identified, families informed, and bodies returned.

However, its operations in Ukraine have also been met with some criticism from dozens of Ukrainian associations, who wrote to the ICRC last week urging it to intensify its activities, accusing the organisation of being absent on the ground, and operating with “a lack of transparency” in the war-torn country.

In a petition addressed to the ICRC’s president, Peter Maurer, around 1,500 representatives from civil society groups, academic institutions and volunteer initiatives called on the organisation to provide full-scale support of humanitarian corridors, and step up its assistance in providing aid and in collecting bodies to be returned to Russia.

They also urged the ICRC to cooperate more closely with Ukrainian volunteers and provide more information regarding its operational activities , including reports on the number of staff engaged and how it is spending funding it has received for Ukraine.

“The ICRC has been a focal point of our frustration because organisation has been absent from more or less from any activities on the ground and they have a very unique humanitarian mandate during the war that no other organisation can pick up,” Maksym Eristavi, a journalist coordinating a number of civil society projects in Ukraine and one of the leaders of the petition, told Geneva Solutions.

“All the evacuation which is done right now in the Kyiv region is handled mostly by the Ukrainian side (Ukrainian Red Cross, Ukrainian state officials and volunteers), we don’t see much of ICRC. We are also upset by the weakness of ICRC statements, Vitalii Vlasiuk, member of the Kyiv Region Military Administration, said in the petition statement.

An ICRC spokesperson responded in a statement to Geneva Solutions, saying that it has scaled up its work massively in the last five weeks and was in constant dialogue to bring about safe passage of civilians in different areas of Ukraine.

“We have sent more than 140 staff to the region, among them medical works including surgeons, psychologists, weapon contamination specialists, engineers, logisticians, and others who can make an immediate difference to people in need. They have joined a team of more than 500 people working across 10 sites in the country, including Kyiv, Poltava, Dnipro and Odessa.

As of the end of last week, more than 500 tons of medical supplies, food and relief items have arrived in Ukraine, the ICRC said.

Countering disinformation

Over the last week, the ICRC has also rebutted what it called a massive “disinformation campaign” against the organisation, in particular that implicat its involvement in forced evacuations of civilians from Ukraine to Russia – also alluded to in the petitioner.

It comes after Ukraine accused Russia of forcibly moving thousands of Ukrainians out of Mariupol to Russian-held territory.

The ICRC’s decision to consider opening an office in the Russian city of Rostov to help citizens in eastern Ukrainian territories has also alarmed many civil society organisations and the Ukraine government. In a statement on 28 March, the Human Rights Committee of Ukraine’s parliament said this move “ will help legitimise the so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ on the territory of the Russian Federation”.

The ICRC responded that it “does not ever help organise or carry out forced evacuations. This applies everywhere we work. We would not support any operation that would go against people’s will and our principles”, adding that misinformation about this issue could cause huge harm to its staff and its ability to carry out its work.