Mariupol risks ‘unimaginable tragedy’

Mariupol, a strategic port in southern Ukraine, surrounded and constantly bombarded by the Russians, is in a “desperate” situation, according to a senior MSF official, who calls for action to avoid “an unimaginable tragedy”.

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“It’s really almost desperate,” admitted Stephen Cornish, the head of MSF Switzerland and one of the coordinators of the NGO’s action in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24.

“Hundreds of thousands of people (…) are literally besieged,” he said in an interview with AFP.

“Sieges are a medieval practice that has been banned by modern warfare and for good reason,” he said, because of the suffering inflicted on civilian populations, who cannot get to safety.

In Mariupol, there is no heating, no water and there is also a shortage of food. The bombardments are incessant.

Local military authorities estimate that 1,207 people died in the town, but like most tolls, it is only partial, with many bodies believed to be under the rubble.

Stephen Cornish recalls that international law “requires the protection of civilians, they must see their basic needs ensured: food, water, medicine and most certainly be able to stay out of the conflict”.

“As we can see, and not only in Mariupol, but also according to credible information coming from Kharkiv and Dnipro and other places, not all necessary efforts are being made to spare civilians”, says the humanitarian official, handling understatement.

“We are really heading towards an unimaginable tragedy”, he warns before adding: “It is still possible to avoid it and we must avoid it”.

MSF has more than 100 people on the ground in Ukraine. The NGO managed to open a mobile clinic on Friday in the western town of Vinnytsia to care for the countless people displaced by the fighting.

But the main challenge is above all the very large number of areas subject to combat at the same time.

“There are dozens of places that need emergency medical help and we just aren’t able to do that yet,” he acknowledges.

For Stephen Cornish, as for the whole world, the bombing by the Russians of a children’s hospital in Mariupol “is truly shocking for our consciences, for our humanity”.

“It is totally unacceptable, and there are no words to understand how this can be allowed in our time”.

The bombardment killed three people, including a child, and totally devastated the installations.

If MSF had no one in the hospital, a certain number of collaborators and their families are locked up in Mariupol.

Other hospital infrastructures are not spared. As of March 11, the WHO listed around 30 attacks on ambulances, medical personnel and health infrastructure. These attacks, which left 12 dead and 34 injured, are potentially war crimes.

The MSF team on site continues to be able to communicate.

“I can tell you that we await these communications with great impatience, and we are relieved when we have news and that they are well”, recognizes Stephen Cornish.

But the level of violence prevents the team “from continuing to provide aid in hospital structures” and that “it is totally unacceptable in our time”, protests the humanitarian.

“We must do everything to ensure that we restore dignity and humanity”.

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