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Ukraine: safe humanitarian corridors urgently needed

Evacuees fleeing the city of Irpin on 7 March © AFP via Getty Images

Harrowing testimonies illustrate dire suffering of those without help or safe routes

Many old people and those with illnesses or disabilities are effectively trapped

‘This pressing need for humanitarian corridors is a direct result of Russia’s betrayal of its legal obligations’ - Agnès Callamard

Civilians whose homes have been destroyed and others fearing for their lives under Russian bombardment must be granted access to safe humanitarian corridors as a matter of urgency, Amnesty International said today. 

At a bare minimum, genuinely safe evacuation routes must be provided, said Amnesty. To date, many such corridors have proven both unreliable and dangerous. 

Ukraine and Russia first agreed on 3 March to establish humanitarian corridors for civilian evacuation and humanitarian aid delivery, but implementation has been slow and limited. 

The Ukrainian authorities have requested that routes should allow civilians to escape from heavily-bombed Mariupol, Enerhodar, Sumy, Izyum and Volnovakha, and for residents of several towns close to Kyiv - including Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel - to reach the capital. 

Civilian testimonies collected by Amnesty (see below) show how in several of these locations they were prevented from leaving by continuous Russian shelling.

Amnesty is calling on the warring parties to agree well-planned, safe humanitarian corridors and to respect such agreements in good faith; for civilians to be provided accessible transportation as well as sufficient time to safely exit; and for international observers to be granted access to monitor their safe passage.

Civilians seeking safety from the bombardments, including those whose homes have been destroyed, urgently need safe passage and they should not be forced to relocate to Russian-controlled territory. Impartial humanitarian relief organisations must be able to gain access to civilians in need, including those who remain after evacuations. 

Amnesty is strongly warning that Russian forces must not employ illegal sieges such as those carried out in Chechnya and Syria, where large numbers of people were subjected to indiscriminate bombardment and left with the “choice” to surrender or starve. Amnesty also objects to any plan which would require civilians to relocate to areas they consider unsafe, including the occupied Crimea or Donbas regions of Ukraine, or Russia.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: 

“Regrettably, humanitarian corridors are needed urgently. 

“This pressing need for humanitarian corridors is a direct result of Russia’s betrayal of its legal obligations. 

“Genuine humanitarian corridors must be established quickly, effectively and safely. Civilians must not be put at even more risk as they seek to escape the conflict.

“Russian forces must also immediately allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians who remain in their homes.

“Civilians must be protected at all times. Safe and secure humanitarian corridors are a must, but unlawful attacks which are killing and injuring civilians must cease forthwith and comprehensively.”

Attacks near Irpin

On Sunday 6 March, near the town of Irpin, a Kyiv suburb, Russian attacks hit an evacuation crossing point, killing several civilians who were trying to flee. 

One woman, who was leaving Irpin in a civilian convoy of 12 cars with signs marked “kids”, told Amnesty they came under attack from Russian soldiers. She said:

“In two, three minutes the shooting began. We know for sure that a 30-year-old woman died, [and a relative’s] mother died. She was 60, she was with me in the car. A shard or a bullet went two millimetres from my brother-in-law’s eye, [and] his arm is broken. Our driver has an issue with his ribs. I'm OK, a small wound close to my head, just blood … but in general, everything is fine with me. The other woman, who lost her mother … everything is OK with her too.”

Journalists filming in the area reported that another Russian attack occurred as civilians were streaming through an intersection, killing four people, including a woman and two of her children. Media also reported repeated firing and shelling in the area, raising concerns that the attacks were indiscriminate or disproportionate.

People with illnesses or disabilities

Amnesty is concerned that certain groups will face particular challenges if they try to escape the conflict. In interviews with Ukrainian residents of threatened cities, Amnesty has been told of people with disabilities, older people and people with health conditions who are less able to easily evacuate their homes, seek safety during attacks, or obtain medical care. 

Elena Kozachenko, a 38-year-old from Chernihiv, has breast cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. She said:

“I have cancer and I need to get medication. I had my last round of chemotherapy on 23 February. My next chemotherapy is supposed to be 16 April. I need check-ups, but they are bombing all the time in the neighbourhood where the cancer hospital is. It’s too scary to go there. I want to leave because staying in Ukraine [now] with my diagnosis is suicide. [But] it isn’t possible to leave ... I’m afraid to evacuate because I’m a living target.”

Many older people impacted by the conflict face great difficulty in trying to flee or in seeking safety during attacks and are often less willing to leave their homes of many decades.

Rita, a 64-year-old family doctor in Kyiv, said:

“Kyiv is an old city. All of the older people, people with limited mobility, can’t get from their apartments to the basement. In our building they wanted to turn off the electricity [at night] so as not to attract bombardment … We said it would be a death sentence for the older people; if they can’t use the lift, they can’t leave their apartments at all.”

A member of the Kyiv regional council - who represents Irpin, Bucha and other communities under Russian siege - said: 

“It’s mostly [older people] who are staying… it is safer for them to stay than to go without money or food, because it’s their native town - they know their neighbours. If they move out, they’re not sure somebody will help them. They don’t have the money to move.”

Tatyana Sobko, a 70-year-old in Kyiv, told Amnesty:

“We don’t want to leave. Our children have tried to take us away many times … this is our home. How can you abandon your home and go sit somewhere abroad? How is that possible? ... it’s our land and we won’t run away.”

Older people and people with disabilities, as well as other groups who may face particular risks and challenges in fleeing, should be prioritised for evacuation, as specified under international humanitarian law. Planning and communication over evacuations and humanitarian corridors must be undertaken in an inclusive way, including by ensuring that information, transportation and other services are all accessible.  

Interviewees across Ukraine have told Amnesty of living in extremely cramped conditions, and suffering severe shortages of food, water and medicine. Some have been unable to leave basements for days on end due to relentless Russian shelling. They have also been experiencing loss of electricity, heating and communication for days. 

Thousands of people have been living under unlawful bombardment, while millions of people have been forcibly displaced over the course of two weeks of conflict in Ukraine. The assault by Russian forces on civilian populations and wanton destruction of the infrastructure of daily life violate the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law and must cease.  

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