The Russian military invasion of Ukraine has decimated civilian centers like schools, hospitals, and other facilities. Over 2.2. million people have fled the country, resulting in a dangerous refugee crisis in Europe as Russia refuses to guarantee the “humanitarian corridors” promised for civilians to safely evacuate. “What we’re talking about is repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure, which is illegal under international law,” says Bel Trew, independent correspondent for The IndependentReporter, who has been reporting about civilians being targeted within other Ukrainian cities.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.orgThe War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Democracy Now!Nermeen Shaikh is the co-host. Hi, Nermeen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Amy, welcome to our listeners across the country as well as around the globe.
AMY GOODMAN:The third week of the Russian invasion in Ukraine has begun. Russia continues to attack civilian areas. The foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine met in Turkey earlier today, but did not make any progress towards a ceasefire. The talks came a day after Ukraine accused Russia of bombing a maternity hospital and a children’s hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol. The strike claimed that three people, including a young child, were killed and 17 others were injured. At the talks in Turkey the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov acknowledged that Russia had attacked the hospital, but claimed that the building was being used by Ukrainian fighters. The situation in Mariupol was described by the Red Cross as apocalyptic, with many residents without heat, water, or food for more than a week. According to the mayor, over 1,200 civilians have been killed in the past 10 days. However this figure has not yet been verified. During the talks in Turkey, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on Russia to allow the evacuation of civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol through a humanitarian corridor.
DMYTRO KULEBA:The worst situation is currently in Mariupol on Sea of Azov. The city is being bombarded by the air. It’s being hit by artillery fire. And I came here with a humanitarian goal, to walk out of the meeting with an agreement to create a humanitarian corridor between Mariupol and Mariupol to allow civilians to flee the conflict zone. Also, a corridor to transport humanitarian aid to Mariupol. Minister Lavrov was unable to commit to it, but he will communicate with the relevant authorities.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. We begin today’s show with Bel Trew. She is an international correspondent. The IndependentUsually, she is based in Beirut. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began two weeks ago, she has been covering the conflict in Ukraine. She is now joining us from Vinnytsia in Ukraine. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bel. If you can start off by describing the situation where you are and then we’ll talk about Mariupol and what you understand is taking place there.
BEL TREW: I’m at the moment in Vinnytsia, which is a central city. It’s key for humanitarian aid delivery, but also it’s on the refugee trail because it connects the south of Ukraine, the east of Ukraine, the north of Ukraine to the west. So it’s a very, very crucial city. At the same time however it’s also under bombardment. I’ve just come back from the town’s main airport, Vinnytsia International Airport, that was hit apparently by eight different missiles. It’s totally destroyed. A nearby military base was also destroyed. So we’re getting air raid sirens here every hour, pretty much, as well as the fact that this key route for humanitarian aid and refugees.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Did civilian areas there and elsewhere you have reported from been attacked? Could you please talk about the attacks against civilian areas?
BEL TREW:Vinnytsia’s International Airport, which is a civilian airfield, was badly damaged. However, no one was there as most people are sheltering in their basements. I have been basically going along most of western Ukraine, so even though the frontline is perhaps quite far away, of course the skies are still a problem for people here, which is why every Ukrainian I have met has said, “Please tell the West, ‘close the skies, create a no-fly zone.’” I was just in a town called Zhytomyr which is just next to Kyiv. It’s the key city before the west of Ukraine. We went around a school, hospital, and 10 residential homes that had been destroyed. So even though that is not on the frontline, Russian troops are about 50 miles down the road, it’s still being bombarded from the sky. This is the key point that Ukrainians keep telling me, is that they cannot win this war if they have to worry about air strikes, missile strikes, shelling, if they don’t have that support from the sky.
AMY GOODMAN:Bel, I would like to see one of your video reports in which you visited a school that was just heavily damaged by a Russian ballistic missile.
BEL TREW:This is the main school in Zhytomyr. It caters for all ages. The ground floor is preschool but it’s also a secondary school. As you can see, it was completely destroyed by a missile strike yesterday. It’s unclear exactly what the target was, but this is very much a school.
AMY GOODMAN:This was Bel Trew, our guest. The Independent. Oleh, a 61 year-old caretaker at the school, was also interviewed.
OLEH: [translated]Since 1995, I have been a laborer at the school. This school was renovated by us, each year improving it so that the children could learn. Now as we come here i’m speechless. I can’t say anything.
AMY GOODMAN:Bel Trew, that is the larger and more detailed description of what he is saying.
BEL TREW:We are referring to repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure, which is illegal under international law. It’s not clear what the target was of that strike. This is a school. It was empty because there were no children. As I mentioned, a maternity unit and several residential houses were also destroyed in the same town. Everyone I spoke to said, “Why is this happening to us? This is a hospital. This is a school. These are homes.” At least four people were killed. The missile struck just seconds before I arrived at the hospital. Due to the stress she was experiencing, one woman gave birth right before the missile struck. They’re now having to build hospitals underground in the basements fearing further assault from the sky. So the question that’s on everyone’s lips here is, “Why are they targeting civilian infrastructure? Why are they targeting humanitarian corridors?” We’ve seen the horrendous footage from Irpin just outside of Kiev. But also of course as we have been talking earlier, Mariupol, the people here, they feel like it’s vindictive and deliberate.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Bel, have your been reporting from the areas you’ve traveled to, and have you heard about these aerial attacks? Have you also seen Russian troops or tanks in the streets?
BEL TREW: For me I haven’t actually seen the Russian troops yet because if you are that close to them then you are pretty much in no man’s land on the frontline. They are certainly seeing Russian troops in the outskirts and other areas in the east of Ukraine. Because they fear a massive attack by the sea, they have a large amount of Russian ships. So in terms of where Russian troop movement is, it’s on the ground, it’s coming from the sky, and also coming from the sea.
AMY GOODMAN:You’ve been trying to get into Mariupol. You haven’t been able to. You have been talking with people such as the Ukrainian Red Cross. Talk about what you understand is happening, and people right now—it was the focus of the talks in Turkey between the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers—Ukraine was hoping for some kind of ceasefire, safe passage for the people of Mariupol. Just before the broadcast, it was bombed again.
BEL TREW: Yeah. When I spoke to the director general of the Ukrainian Red Cross—his teams by the way are responsible for opening those humanitarian corridors. These are the convoys that go in to rescue people. He said they tried for four consecutive days to get people out from Mariupol. But every time, their convoy was destroyed by shelling. He said to me they couldn’t get even a single truck of food into Mariupol. They couldn’t get medical supplies. That’s why the attack on the hospital is so devastating because medical supplies are so low already. He told me that he believes that there are only three to five days of food left for the people living there. We are hearing reports about people melting snow for water, and they don’t have any heating. It is below zero here, I can tell you that. It’s extremely cold. It’s snowing. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to be under heavy shelling, to not have food, to not have any water, to not have any medical supplies, to not be able to get out and to be dealing with this freezing temperature.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:As you may know, yesterday’s U.S. and U.K. statements expressed concern that Russia might now use chemical and unconventional weapons. Over a decade ago, you reported from Syria about Syria. Many people have drawn parallels between Russian military strategy now in Ukraine and that in Syria. Would you be able to respond to these concerns? Also, please share your own experiences reporting from Syria as well as from Ukraine.
BEL TREW: This is the biggest fear for people here in Ukraine, is we’ve seen what Russia is capable of in Syria. Certainly I’ve been reporting on that crisis, as you said, for over a decade. Human rights groups have documented the widespread use banned weapons, especially since Russia entered into the conflict in 2015. I’m talking about chemical weapons, incendiary weapons, cluster munitions, barrel bombs, either directly by Russian forces or Syrian regime forces supported by the Russians. They have literally thrown all they can at the civilians of Syria. There is no international law in Syria. I fear what they are capable to doing in Syria. Could this happen in Ukraine? While the situation here is desperate, obviously international law has been thrown out the window, and Geneva Conventions have been trampled upon, I don’t think the worst has happened yet. This is my biggest fear. Russia feels it has been cornered and is being isolated from the world. I have seen what they did with Syria. I’m very concerned for civilians here in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN:Do you have any idea about the casualties Russian casualties: The Ukrainians claim they have killed 12,000 Russian soldiers. Russia says there is no comparable number. They may have given 500 as an estimate. We don’t know how many Ukrainian military deaths there are, even Ukrainian civilian deaths. Do you feel this?
BEL TREW:This is a huge question, as we are seeing so many different narratives. As you aid, the Ukrainians speak of more than 10,000 Russian soldiers being killed. The Russians are saying that’s not true at all. And frankly, we can’t verify it. We can’t get to those areas and count bodies. I believe that the United Nations has reported over 1,300 deaths. That includes deaths and injuries they’ve documented. But they also have said to me, the officials have told me that’s a woefully low estimate. At the moment there’s whole areas we haven’t been able to access. Mariupol’s mayor has stated that thousands of people have been killed within his city in the past few days. We have seen images of mass graves and bodies being buried in the city, but no one can verify this. So I’m afraid that the death toll is actually much higher than we could ever have imagined, and we may not know that for weeks or even months to come.
AMY GOODMAN:We would like to see another one of your reports. The IndependentThis is close to the Ukrainian border with Poland.
BEL TREW: I’m about 40 to 50 kilometers away from the border, and this is the start of the line of cars to the border with Poland where people are beginning to flee. As you can see, people are walking 40 to 50 kms from their cars to get to the border. It’s a 7- to 10-hour walk. People are doing this with their luggage, they’re doing it with their children, and they’re doing it with their pets.
PERSON: It’s too far for me, because the 40 kilometers, we have to go in by walk.
BEL TREW: Fifty.
PERSON: Yeah, 50 kilometers.
BEL TREW: And you’re going to have to walk 50 kilometers?
PERSON:I feel shame, as I have said before. Exhausted, because it’s a long travel, and it’s not over, because for us, 14 buses.
PERSON:Yes, there are fourteen buses.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a report of Bel Trew. Bel, if possible, describe the Ukraine-side of the border. We’re going to talk to the Norwegian Refugee Council on the Polish side of the border. How do you personally stay safe? After another journalist has been hurt, has been killed.
BEL TREW: Absolutely. The scenes of the refugee crisis on the Ukrainian side have been absolutely devastating. I’ve seen families split up because they’ve got family members that are in areas that are under siege or now even occupied by Russian forces. I’ve seen mothers with their children but without their husbands or the fathers, because they’ve had to stay behind because of general mobilization, they’re of fighting age. I’ve seen children traveling alone. I met a 17 year-old boy whose sister and mother are currently in Kherson occupied. His father is still in Odesa because he has been signed in, and he is traveling alone. People were also walking 10-12 hours in freezing temperatures in order to reach the border. Sometimes, they were being turned around. We saw people driving for days across the country, and people desperately wanting to get on trains. It has been truly extraordinary. This is a remarkable refugee crisis.
We have seen shocking footage, including that of the British, to answer your second question about keeping safe. Sky NewsTeam that was ambushed. We’ve also heard about journalists down south near the coast who have come under fire as well. And as you’ve seen, humanitarian corridors are being hit by mortars which journalists have been present as they’ve been covering it. It feels like the international guidelines have been abandoned and anything is possible. So as a journalist, you’ve just got to take every security precaution you can, even though it’s a pretty difficult situation.
AMY GOODMAN:Are you wearing a bulletproof vest?
BEL TREW: Yes, I am, and the reason I’m actually wearing this is not necessarily because Vinnytsia, the city behind me, is dangerous, but it’s just because I have been at an airport which has been hit by multiple incoming fire, rockets or missiles, and there was an air raid siren at the time. So we just scrambled to put on our vests just in case, because that airport has been hit at least eight times, and standing there, I didn’t want to be hit again. Vinnytsia, behind me, is certainly one of the safer places. It’s just that I literally just came from the airport that had been bombed relatively recently.
AMY GOODMAN:Bel Trew, We want to thank for being with Us, International Correspondent The Independent, usually based out of Beirut has been covering the war on Ukraine since the Russian invasion started last month. He joined us from Vinnytsia in Ukraine. Please remain safe.