‘When I close my eyes, I see Azovstal’: ICRC chief of evacuation

ICRC chief of evacuation efforts, Gregory Brissonneau. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/KD)

Only two days after returning to Geneva from Ukraine, ICRC’s chief of evacuation efforts in the Azovstal steel plant tells how the five-day operation to rescue 101 civilians went down and where his job as “evacuation expert” will take him next.

Gregory Brissonneau, head of Dnipro sub delegation, just came back from a five week-long emergency mission in Ukraine. His task: exfiltrate the last civilians entrenched in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters and civilians had withdrawn as Russian forces pushed into the south-eastern port city. Geneva Solutions debriefed him two days only after his return at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters in Geneva.

Becoming an evacuation expert

Evacuation missions are dangerous, sometimes deadly. They take place beyond front lines in areas at the mercy of the belligerent parties. French TV reporter Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff was killed on 30 May, as he was covering an evacuation operation near the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk, when a piece of shrapnel perforated the armoured car he was travelling in, fatally wounding his neck.

Gregory Brissonneau has already returned several times alive from such operations and has become some sort of “evacuation expert” in spite of himself.

“It’s not something common, but by chance I have done evacuations in my last three missions in Congo, Myanmar and Ukraine,” he said. The French humanitarian led an operation in 2018 to evacuate 11 elderly people stuck under shelling in Myanmar and also helped evacuate Congolese women, children and elderly people who had fled a remote area close to the border with Angola in 2020.

He acknowledges that, while he may have felt fear in such a volatile environment, there’s no time to think about it.

“You have to be prepared even if you are not prepared. It requires the most important qualities of ICRC: adaptability and flexibility.”

When Brissonneau landed in Dnipro in eastern Ukraine on 24 April, two months after the war broke out, his job seemed simple on paper: replace the head of the local ICRC office, a base covering a vast area going from Mariupol to Sievierodonetsk. But only three days after his arrival, he was told that Ukrainians and Russians had struck a deal. In a joint mission with the United Nations, he would oversee the evacuation of civilians from the 10 square kilometres area covered by Azovstal– one of the two biggest plants in Ukraine if not Europe.

An ‘exceptional life mission’

When Brissonneau left for Ukraine, he told his friends: “This is a life mission”. “When I signed in as an ICRC delegate in 2009, it was exactly for that kind of mission, to help in this kind of context…. But what should have been a normal emergency deployment became exceptional,” he said.

The ICRC chief of operations had to organised three evacuations from Azovstal in only five weeks. With one ICRC staff, the help of four Ukrainian colleagues who insisted in taking part in the mission and 10 UN staff, Brissonneau left Zaporizhzhia at dusk, followed by an impressive convoy of 50 buses and 20 ambulances to reach as fast as possible the gigantic steelworks in Mariupol.

“You leave without knowing where you will stay overnight, the modalities, the role you are going to play and you discover little by little what is going to happen. There is tension at the checkpoints, each time you have to discuss. Calm and patience are the two key words in that kind of environment,” he says, with sparkling reassuring eyes.

When the convoy finally arrived in front of the plant, the staff greeted 101 children, women, elderly people and a few men, crying and carrying their bags in a state of shock. They had just spent two months underground, somewhere in one of so many of Azovstal’s bunkers without daylight, food or water, tired and terrified. Brissonneau recalls:

“They were mostly scared by the bombings outside, not knowing if they were going to get killed, what would be of tomorrow, when and if they would go out… When they saw us, they felt relieved and – this is typical – a lot of them broke out [crying], releasing all the tension accumulated.”

A member of the evacuation mission waves the ICRC flag to signal the arrival of the convoy in Azovstal. (Credit: ICRC)

While the rest of staff briefed the civilians on what would become of them, Brissonneau only had their security in mind – there was no time to spare.

“The cease fire was never broken but the mission took longer than expected so I had to spend time calling the hierarchy in charge of renegotiating [the extension of the ceasefire] When you have 101 civilians behind you, you feel proud but also very responsible for them. I did not feel relieved until our 80-vehicle convoy reached Zaporizhzhia.”

Upon arrival, the staff decided to spend the night with the civilians under the tents of the city’s camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), waiting for smiles to appear on their drawn features, and hearing them all night long sharing with “a certain excitement” their experiences.

The following morning, Gregory was finally able to sleep after working 20-hour shifts for five days straight, while the rest of the civilians still hiding in the plant finally agreed to leave, after hearing that this first evacuation had been a success.

Ukrainian civilians are evacuated after spending two months holed up in the underground of the Azovstal factory. (Credit: ICRC)
Mission accomplished

Gregory and his team ended up doing one evacuation after the other. The second one proved less ambitious, more appropriate – “Still volatile, but mitigation measures improved. Lessons were learnt, we were a little more organised with only 10 buses and no ambulances.”

The bigger the convoy, the longer the time spent at the checkpoints, but for the rest, the process was the same. The convoy arrived in Azovstal, evacuated the remaining 51 civilians and headed back to Zaporizhzhia, where they decided whether they wanted to be displaced in Ukraine, seek refuge abroad or to go back home for those who did not know where else to go.

Before leaving Ukraine, Brissonneau had a last mission to fulfil. He had to evacuate and register the hundreds of prisoners, mostly soldiers, captured after Azovstal was finally taken by Russian forces on 16 May. It was a huge and challenging operation to register them in only three days, Brissonneau said.

Despite the Geneva Conventions, Russia has said it will try captured fighters of the Azov Regiment, an ultranationalist Ukrainian unit that the Kremlin calls “neo-Nazis”, as criminals and not as prisoners of war. Russia has reported up to 2439 Ukrainians taken prisoner during the surrender of Azovstal.

When he closes his eyes, Brissonneau sees Azovstal. “It’s interesting that Azovstal becomes your routine job, your workplace. It’s exceptional, but it’s a normal ICRC job for a delegate. Just doing your work, just trying not to fail,” he says, while knowing that it was the first time that he had such a level of responsibility.

All eyes were on Mariupol and Azovstal the whole time during the operations. More than 300 journalists, ICRC president Peter Maurer, the UN secretary general, the entire world, and even drones watching them.

Brissonneau knows he did his share and fulfilled the three objectives of his mission: take out the civilians, check; bring the team back safely, check; register all the prisoners, check. While it’s never a good idea to get emotional on the field, he has one regret. He would have liked to spend more time with the civilians, especially Anna, the mother of a six-month-old baby – the youngest child of the convoy.

Brissonneau remembers how he spoke with her in the French she learnt at Mariupol University, and her “happy baby”, as he called him, always smiling despite having spent two thirds of his life in a war.

“It’s my life,” confides the ICRC delegate, who started his career as a human resources manager at the hotel company Club Med in France.

“After a mission like this one I know why I do this job. In the beginning, you sign in to help people victim of conflict and mission after mission you see the results. We are good in emergencies. We are good in conflict environments, so you continue. I would like to have a ‘normal’ life but you return from a mission and there is another one.”

Adrenaline is the fuel that keeps people like Brissonneau going, and the next thing you know, he will leave 20 June for Cox’s Bazar, the biggest Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. He’ll pack up his bags again, at 47 years old, still no wife, still no kids, but with the Rohingya refugees at heart and a Ukrainian steel plant dancing before his eyes.