GENEVA (AP) — Skirmishes echoing in the distance. Sleeping in a car, or a couple of nights in a Ukrainian monastery in the war zone. Driving gingerly thorough countless checkpoints staffed by jumpy Ukrainian or Russian soldiers.
The Ukraine office director for the International Committee of the Red Cross described these and other harrowing conditions faced by a small but determined team that tried and failed to reach the besieged city of Mariupol in a bid to evacuate civilians.
The humanitarian relief group's team set out for Mariupol on Friday but suspended the operation over what the Red Cross described as inadequate security guarantees. The three-vehicle, nine-person team tried again in the following days, hoping to escort a convoy out of the city, which has been surrounded by Russian troops and low on food and other supplies for weeks.
They ultimately succeeded in accompanying about 1,000 civilians who managed to get on their own from Mariupol to Berdyansk, a city 84 kilometers (52 miles)to the west, and made it safely Wednesday to Zaporizhzhia, a government-controlled city 206.5 kilometers (about 128 miles) to the north.
“The level of stress is immense. We are working under a fragile cease-fire. You never know whether it would be respected,” Pascal Hundt, the head of ICRC's delegation in Ukraine, said. “We’re quite relieved that they managed to go back.”
ICRC previously said about 500 evacuees were escorted out, but Hundt said the final count was about twice that after many people fell into a growing caravan behind Red Cross vehicles.
Hundt told The Associated Press in a video call from the western Ukrainian city Kamianets-Podilskyi that security officials told the team that conditions on the route to Mariupol prevented the evacuation operation from going forward.
“When you travel with a convoy with buses, you have to stop at the checkpoint. You have to explain who you are, what you are doing there. They may be not necessarily aware of you coming in, and then it takes time, and then you proceed to the next one and you start again,” he said. “In the evening, there’s a curfew. People cannot move. Everybody gets stressed, including the soldiers at the checkpoint.”
Hundt described his team – which he was not a part of -- racing to move before nightfall, when it’s more dangerous to travel.
“It took us five days to do that operation. Five days … to do a bit more than 200 kilometers. You can imagine the difficulties we faced,” he said, referring to the distance between Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol.
One night, police detained the team members before eventually releasing them, the Red Cross said. The team found a monastery to sleep in and shower, Hundt said.
“There were people in it, in there, and they did welcome us quite warmly,” he said. “And after having spent nights either in the car or in the petrol station, to find this hospitality there from the monastery was a great relief.”
He said ICRC is still trying to arrange a larger evacuation from Mariupol and has asked Ukrainian and Russian officials for a four-day clearance so there is time to get more people out.
“I think it is important that these people are given the opportunity to get out from hell, because this is really an apocalyptic situation there,” Hundt said.
The Red Cross says it doesn’t have an estimate of how many civilians are left in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000. Ukrainian officials have estimated the number to be around 160,000.
The Geneva-based ICRC this week dispatched teams of medical personnel and weapons experts to fan out from Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, to assess needs, in suburbs like Bucha and Irpin. Alleged atrocities against civilians were discovered after Russian forces pulled out from towns around Kyiv. .
“What I can tell you is that the needs are just gigantic,” Hundt said. “The testimonies that we are receiving are heartbreaking, and it is still dangerous.”
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