Disabled and Older People Are Suffering the Most in Mariupol Siege

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, has accused Russian forces of continuing to besiege Ukrainian cities. He claimed that they have reduced Mariupol’s southern part to ashes. As heavy shelling has forced most civilians to hide in basements, all foreign journalists fled the city. We speak to Belkis Wille, who just left Ukraine after spending over three weeks documenting the effects of the war and describes “an absolute hellscape” in Mariupol. Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch Wille says that seniors and people with disabilities are often unable escape to safe hiding spots. “The people that we spoke to were the lucky ones. They were the ones with the means and the ability to get out of the city.”


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AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, has accused Russian forces for razing Mariupol’s southern city to ashes. Tens of thousands of civilians remain stranded in the strategic port city without food or water. The destruction is being documented by no foreign journalists.

After 20 days of being trapped in Mariupol for over 20 days, a team from the Associated Press left the city. The reporters claimed that they were being pursued by Russian forces at the end of the interview. Mstyslav Chernov, AP video journalist, has given a harrowing account. accountMariupol, during bombardment. I would like to see a part of his account. For our television audience, we’ll also show images of Mariupol by Sergii Makarov, the photographer from the area. These images were provided by Human Rights Watch. These are the words of AP’s Mstyslav Chernov.

He writes, “One bomb at a time, the Russians cut electricity, water, food supplies and finally, crucially, the cell phone, radio and television towers. The few remaining journalists in the city managed to escape before the last connections were cut and a complete blockade was established. …

“The deaths came fast. We watched as a doctor attempted to save a little girl who had been hit with shrapnel on February 27th. She died.

“A second child died, then a third. Ambulances stopped picking up the wounded because people couldn’t call them without a signal, and they couldn’t navigate the bombed-out streets. …

“Shelling hit the hospital and the houses around. It smashed the windows of our van, blew holes in its side, and punctured a tire. Sometimes we would run to film a burning house, then return amid the explosions. …

“By this time I had witnessed deaths at the hospital, corpses in the streets, dozens of bodies shoved into a mass grave. I had witnessed so much death, I was filming it almost without taking it in.

“On March 9, twin airstrikes shredded the plastic taped over our van’s windows. I saw the fireball within a few seconds before pain pierced into my inner ear, skin, and my face.

“We watched smoke rise from a maternity hospital. When we arrived, emergency workers were still pulling bloodied pregnant women from the ruins.”

Those are the words of the Associated Press’s Mstyslav Chernov, who spent 20 days in Mariupol documenting the Russian siege.

To talk more about the humanitarian crisis there and across Ukraine, we’re joined by Belkis Wille, senior researcher with the Conflict and Crisis division at Human Rights Watch. She has just returned from Ukraine, where she spent more than three weeks. Human Rights Watch has released a new report. report largely based on her research, titled “Ukraine: Ensure Safe Passage, Aid for Mariupol Civilians: Residents Describe Harsh Conditions During Russian Attack.” She’s joining us now from Zürich, Switzerland.

Belkis, many thanks for being here. I can imagine you must be suffering from trauma right now due to the trauma you experienced listening to these testimonies. Describe what your Mariupol survivors told you.

BELKIS WILLE: I mean, what I heard was truly, as I think you’ve already depicted well, an absolute hellscape. I heard families tell me how they were flushing the water from their heating systems in order to get more water to live. They spent over two weeks in basements, hiding from the constant shelling, before finally being able get in their cars and the cars of their friends and leave the city. They were also melting the snow to get water, and they went to local streams and rivers. All of them stated that waiting in these lines at local streams and fountains meant you were at risk of being shot. They would only leave their basements to cook on open flame in their backyards. And it was in those times when they left their basements that they would see dead bodies strewn outside, dead bodies of people that they knew, families who would say, you know, “We can’t even bury our son, who was killed in an explosion nearby, because the shelling continues and it’s not safe to bury him yet.” The stories were really horrific.

My favorite stories were those of older people and people with disabilities. They, when the electricity was cut, unlike everyone else in the city who went down into these basements to shelter, they couldn’t do that, because no electricity meant they couldn’t take elevators down. So they sat in their apartments on their sofas. I spoke to an elderly man. He lived on the sixth level of his building. He sat down on his sofa with his windows blown out so that there was no glass between him, the freezing temperatures, and he watched the shelling and the fires from his window. He hoped that he would survive.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Belkis Wille also reported that some Russian forces had used large amounts of cluster munitions. What did you find out about this?

BELKIS WILLE:We have seen numerous instances of Russian forces firing cluster bombs into civilian-populated areas since the conflict began. In the very beginning of the conflict in Donetsk, we saw this. Cluster munitions were then used in multiple instances in Kharkiv (the second-largest city in Ukraine) which has been severely damaged by recent attacks. And we’ve even seen cluster munitions used elsewhere in the country. We issued a reportOn the numerous occasions, in multiple attacks, that cluster munitions were used in the city of Mykolaiv, near Odessa. We have also seen civilians wounded and killed in these cases.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:In an effort to create humanitarian corridors, there have been reports of violations of ceasefires. What do you know about this? How is it possible for so many people to leave, despite the absence of an organized form or humanitarian relief through these corridors.

BELKIS WILLE:Officials tried to negotiate humanitarian corridors with the help of independent institutions, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. But, repeatedly, they have stated that their efforts to put in place an immediate ceasefire to allow a humanitarian route to open have failed. The idea is that these corridors would allow for civilians to safely evacuate areas of fighting, but also that urgently needed humanitarian aid could get into areas where there are going to be some civilians that simply can’t flee, some people, as I mentioned, you know, older people, people with disabilities, other people who can’t leave or don’t want to leave the areas that they live in. I would say it’s important to note that, ultimately, the obligation on both sides is to allow civilians to flee safely and for aid to get in, regardless of whether corridors exist or not.

Mariupol’s residents waited for days to hear that a corridor was being constructed so that they could evacuate safely and in an orderly fashion. And after days and days and days of waiting, where each of these corridors failed, it was around March 14th that a few people simply decided, “Enough is enough. Either I’m going to die in my basement, or I’m going to die trying to leave the city, and I prefer the latter option.” So they got into their cars, and they just started driving. They knew they were driving on Russian-controlled territory, but they hoped they would reach the Ukrainian side. One car lead to five cars, which led to ten cars. On March 14, we were able to hear that 160 cars were trying desperately to reach the Ukrainian side.

And that’s when my colleague and I actually headed to the area where we knew people would be arriving once they made it back into Ukrainian-controlled territory in the city of Zaporizhzhia. We stayed there for two more days, interviewing some of those thousands who then got into their vehicles and took the chance of getting out of the city to get to safety.

AMY GOODMAN:Belkis, you speak of people getting in their own cars. What about people who don’t have them, the most compromised people, the poorest, the disabled, the old?

BELKIS WILLE: Absolutely. That’s the thing that everyone that I interviewed raised with me. They said, you know, “We were sheltering for weeks in a basement with 50 other people, 80 other people. When we heard that cars were trying out, we got in our car. Maybe half the people, a quarter of the people who were sheltering with us also had cars and left, but we left behind the others.” And these are people who didn’t have private vehicles, who don’t have the means to leave. The sad truth is that the people we spoke to were the ones who were lucky. They were the ones who had the means and the ability of getting out of the city. Local authorities have confirmed that at least 200,000 people remain in the city. And as you say, many of them simply don’t have the means to get out. And that’s why it is so important that humanitarian aid can get into the city, where food stocks are dwindling, where medication is running out, and where so much assistance is urgently needed.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about — more about Kharkiv, the eastern city. These are the voices and stories of volunteers who removed debris from homes that had been attacked.

VOLUNTEER 1: [translated]A girl who was walking alongside the medical center was shot and killed. Near entrance five is a man who was injured in the lungs and another area of his body. He was returning home when it occurred. He was struck by shrapnel. He was a lieutenant colonel with the reserve. Who else got hit? A grandmother was also killed. Her grandson is now disabled.

VOLUNTEER 2: [translated]I don’t see the point in leaving the city, honestly. Why join the Territorial Defense Force I have no military experience but I can help this city with my labor. Why not?

VOLUNTEER 3: [translated]At the moment, there is no work at home. I am 70. I am an experienced engineer. I had work to complete up until yesterday. However, I realized that this appeal was more urgent and important than I thought.

AMY GOODMAN:These are the voices and opinions of Kharkiv volunteers. You also have Human Rights Watch documenting Russia’s use of cluster munitions, particularly in another city under siege, in Mykolaiv. If you could talk about these attacks, as well, and what you’ve documented?

BELKIS WILLE:We initially documented in Kharkiv several different uses of cluster munitions. This was at a time when many civilians still lived there. Cluster munitions could injure and even kill civilians. We published a more detailed version of this report in the latter part of 2012. reportThis actually includes 43 attacks on civilian property, shops and homes, as well as other common spaces used by civilians, to the point where the city was so badly damaged. And during the time that these attacks were rocking the city, there wasn’t any safe corridor out. There wasn’t an easy way for civilians to leave. And that’s, unfortunately, why so many were wounded and killed in those attacks.

As you stated, fighting has continued on other fronts. In the last days, Mykolaiv has been under heavy shelling and attack. The city has a military airbase. The city also has a military plant. But the areas where we’ve seen cluster munitions landing are also in residential neighborhoods. In other parts of the city, we’ve interviewed people who had munitions landing in the middle of their household, that they and their family were still there. Unfortunately, these attacks continue to inflict wounds and death on civilians.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:I wanted you to answer a question about the role played by countries like Poland in welcoming millions more Ukrainians fleeing the war. And they’ve gotten a lot of media attention for that. However, Poland has been closing its borders to Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Africans fleeing devastation in their home countries. For example, on March 2nd, according to press reports, a Polish border guard tweeted, quote, “Last night, 51 foreigners tried to illegally cross into Poland from Belarus. 11 people from Syria, 33 from Iraq, 1 from Burkina Faso and 6 from Congo were arrested.” Now, this is an area, the Belarus border, where foreign journalists are not allowed, while the foreign journalists are allowed to film and report on the refugees being welcomed from Ukraine. What does this tell us about the nature and human rights implications of one group being treated one way while another group is treated differently?

BELKIS WILLE: I think that’s such an important point to make. I was simply stunned by the sight I saw as I crossed the border into Poland from Ukraine on Sunday. I was greeted by dozens upon dozens of tents belonging to various organizations around the globe as I crossed the border. A man gave me a hot cup coffee as I tried to get my bearings straight and figure out which direction I should go. A woman gave me a bowl soup. Someone offered me a bowl of soup for free. SIM card. People were distributing diapers, baby foods, and providing transport for free to cities in Poland. This response is amazing.

The welcome that Ukrainians and foreigners in Ukraine who flee from the country are facing is amazing, but at the same time stands in such stark contrast to what we’ve seen at the Polish border, the Polish-Belarus border, only in November, when we saw people being pushed back illegally across the border back into Belarus. People were beaten and beaten by border guards, while others died from the effects of freezing to death in the woods. And as you say, you know, it’s not like volunteer organizations hadn’t wanted to provide assistance at that point to people stuck on the border, but they weren’t allowed to. This is a disturbing difference. And all I can hope is that now that we’ve seen what a welcoming response can look like and should look like, that that is extended to all refugees and asylum seekers that are fleeing war.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, didn’t you go into Ukraine to investigate what was happening to African students, for example, who were trying to flee Ukraine?

BELKIS WILLE: In the first days of the war, in particular, we had a country — Ukraine is a country that has many, many tens of thousands of foreign students that study there, students from India, Nigeria, China, Morocco, all over the world. When the conflict began, many people tried to board buses and trains to get to the border with Poland and other border crossings. Ukrainian children and women were given priority. Many foreign students were denied the right to board buses and trains in those spaces. I interviewed many students who eventually made it to the western city of Lviv — Indian students, Moroccan students, Algerian students — and they described to me how they were pushed off of buses. They were pushed from trains. They were prevented from boarding because, you know, local authorities were telling them, “Priority is given to Ukrainian women and children, not to you.”

AMY GOODMAN:We want to thank Belkis Wille for being with us. She is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Conflict and Crisis division. She spent three weeks documenting the effects on Ukraine after the war. Human Rights Watch published a new report. reportThis is largely based upon her research. We will link to it at democracynow.org.

Coming up, we’ll speak with a pacifist in Kyiv. Stay with us.