For the thousands of civilians stranded in Ukraine’s active war zone, the establishment of a humanitarian corridor could mean the difference between living and dying, experts say.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk says at least nine humanitarian corridors are expected to open this week in war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine to save civilians from heavy fighting.
But designated passages outside the besieged cities, such as the separatist-controlled regions of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine and Donbass in eastern Ukraine, could be more risky than sheltering in the basement if not done with proper and complete transparency, said Crystal Wells, a spokesman for International. The Red Cross Committee told ABC News.
“We see humanitarian corridors, which we refer to as safe passages, as a measure of desperation in a truly horrific time,” Wells said.
What is a human corridor?
The Humanitarian Corridor is a way for civilians to escape from the most dangerous war zones. For a safe route, Russian and Ukrainian leaders must agree on a specific route, and a ceasefire must be agreed with those routes to give civilians a window of opportunity to get out of the crossfire.
Safe travel routes during the war dates back to World War II, when 10,000 children from Nazi-controlled countries were renamed “Kinder Transport” for humanitarian rescue. In 1949, the Geneva Conventions established rules for ensuring access to humanitarian supplies, including food and medicine, to civilians during wartime.
“It’s important, first of all, to remember that civilians are actually protected under international humanitarian law. These are the laws that govern armed conflict,” Wells said. “And civilians should be protected from hostilities whether they are in their homes, hospitals, schools or so-called humanitarian corridors.”
But Wales said some humanitarian routes open in Ukraine had to be closed quickly or not used at all because Russian forces had allegedly bombed the passage despite both sides agreeing to a ceasefire.
“It’s not like a magic wand to end a sudden humanitarian corridor and end civilian suffering,” Wells said. “It simply came to our notice then that they had agreed not only in principle but also on specific terms so that not only the people in the capital city would agree. It has to come down to operational, concrete, logistical details, and for it to work safely, the ground forces have to liaise with the chain of command. “
He said that if the details of the humanitarian corridor, including the exact route and time of the ceasefire, were not communicated to the front line troops, it could create a dangerous – and deadly – situation.
“It’s not just about the safety of our team, it’s about leading people or not associating them with anything where they could be at a loss,” Wells said.
In the absence of humanitarian corridors, Ukrainian civilians have tried to flee the war zone at the risk of their lives. Many have been killed.
“What is happening in cities like Mariupol is that in the absence of this concrete agreement, you are leaving civilians, but they are doing it in a very ad hoc way. They are deciding life and death to go, and there is no ceasefire agreement and no definite route, time and all this. So it’s very risky for people. “
100,000 people are trapped in Mariupol
Mariupol, a port city of about 400,000 people, has been under siege since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko told the Associated Press by telephone Monday that the death toll in his city had exceeded 10,000 and could double as attacks continue. Boychenko further alleged that Russian forces had brought mobile crematoriums to Mariupol to collect and burn civilian bodies to cover up war crimes.
Russia denies atrocities in Ukraine and claims it is not targeting civilians.
In a statement posted on social media on Monday, Vereshchuk said the route of humanitarian evacuation has been agreed for travelers in private vehicles from Mariupol.
Wales estimates that more than 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol.
“For us, Mariupol really remains a lot more focus and a priority,” Wells said. “It’s a city that has been without humanitarian aid for weeks now. They’ve been out of town for weeks without any proper safe passage for civilians.”
He said ICRC teams had been trying for weeks to deliver humanitarian aid to Mariupol without success.
“We tried again a few Fridays ago to gain access to Mariupol, and our teams tried to cross the street for five days and five nights, and the security situation did not allow it,” Wells said.
Successful humanitarian corridor
Wells said the ICRC had successfully used the designated safe route for evacuation of civilians from the northeastern Ukrainian city of Sumi and for security in Zaporizhia between the Russian-controlled city of Bardiansk, which is about 120 miles long.
He said last week an unarmed ICRC convoy from Bardiansk to Zaporizhia included buses and Red Cross land cruisers that were clearly marked by the agency’s symbol on the front and back of the convoy. Wells said many of the civilians who joined the convoy fled Mariupol.
“We had seven buses with seven volunteer bus drivers, and that would allow about 350 people to board,” Wells said. “But then our private cars started joining the caravan from Berdynsk to Zaporizhia. By the end of that caravan to Zaporizhia, they estimated that there were about 100 civilian vehicles, which reached about 1,000 of us.”
Wells said it took two days to evacuate from Bardiansk to Zaporizhia. He said similar missions in Mariupol would take more time.
Wells said: “To do this for 100,000 people, we need a contract to keep up with the day, not just the hours.”
No matter how much time is spent on humanitarian corridors, Wells said some civilians are forced to leave behind.
“What will happen to the elderly? What will happen to people with disabilities? Not everyone is able to get in their own car or get on the bus,” Wells said. “So, there is also the need to bring help to these places and civilians still need to be protected and respected from hostilities.”