- Bel Trewinternational correspondent for The Independent newspaper.
The Russian military invasion of Ukraine has devastated civilian centers such as schools and hospitals. 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 Independent, who has been reporting on civilians being targeted in other Ukrainian cities.
AMY GOODMAN: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its third week, with Russia continuing to attack civilian areas. Earlier today, the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine met in Turkey but failed to make 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. Three people, including a child, reportedly died in the strike; 17 were injured. At the talks in Turkey, the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov admitted Russia had shelled the hospital, but claimed the building was being used as a base for Ukrainian fighters. The Red Cross described the situation in Mariupol as “apocalyptic,” with many residents cuts off from food, water, power or heat for over a week. The mayor there says 1,200 civilians have been killed over the past 10 days, but that figure has not 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 most tragic situation is currently now in the city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The city is being bombarded from the air. It’s being hit by artillery fire. And I came here with a humanitarian purpose, to walk out from the meeting with the decision to arrange a humanitarian corridor in and from Mariupol, from Mariupol, for civilians who want to flee this area of fear and struggle, and humanitarian corridor to bring in Mariupol humanitarian aid. … Unfortunately, Minister Lavrov was not in a position to commit himself to it, but he will correspond with the respective authorities on this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
We begin today’s show with Bel Trew. She’s an international correspondent for The Independent, usually based in Beirut. She’s been covering the war in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began two weeks ago. She’s joining us now from Vinnytsia, 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: Well, 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. There’s also a military base nearby that was destroyed, as well. So we’re getting air raid sirens here every hour, pretty much, as well as the fact that there’s, you know, this key route for humanitarian aid and refugees.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Bel, so far as you know, have civilian areas been targeted there and elsewhere where you’ve reported from? Can you talk about the attacks on civilian areas?
BEL TREW: Well, in Vinnytsia, as I said, the international airport, which is a civilian airport, was pretty badly damaged, but no one was there, because, of course, most people are taking shelter in their basements at the moment. 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’ve met has said, “Please tell the West, 'Close the skies, create a no-fly zone.'” So, I was just in a town called Zhytomyr, which is just next to Kyiv. It’s the key city before the west of Ukraine. And there, we went around a school that had been damaged, a hospital that had been damaged, and at least 10 residential homes. 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. And this is the key point that Ukrainians keep telling me, is that they cannot win this war if they have to worry about airstrikes, missile strikes, shelling, if they don’t have that support from the sky.
AMY GOODMAN: Bel, I want to go to one of your video reports where you visited a school complex that had just been heavily damaged by a Russian missile.
BEL TREW: This is the main school for Zhytomyr. It caters to all ages. The ground floor is preschool, but it’s also a secondary school. And as you can see, it was utterly devastated in a missile strike just yesterday. It’s unclear exactly what the target was, but this is very much a school.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was our guest, Bel Trew of The Independent. She also spoke to a 61-year-old caretaker of the school named Oleh.
OLEH: [translated] I’ve been working at this school for almost 15 years as a laborer. We were renovating this with our own hands, every year making it better and better, so that the children could focus on learning. Now as we come here, I’m speechless. I can’t say anything.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Bel Trew, take that larger and what he is describing.
BEL TREW: Well, absolutely. What we’re talking about is repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure, which is illegal under international law. It’s not clear what the target was of that strike. This is very much a school. I mean, thankfully there were no children in it because of the war. But in that same town, as I described, a maternity unit was also destroyed, and several residential homes. 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. And actually, in the hospital that I went to, they had to evacuate the pregnant women and a newborn baby to the basement just seconds before the missiles struck. One woman actually gave birth in the middle of that strike because of the stress that she was under. 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 Kyiv, but also, of course, as we’ve been talking earlier, Mariupol. The people here, they feel like it’s vindictive and deliberate.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Bel, from where you’ve been reporting, the areas you’ve traveled to, have you — in addition, of course, to hearing about these aerial attacks, have you also, yourself, seen Russian troops or tanks on the streets?
BEL TREW: So, for me, I haven’t actually seen the Russian troops yet, because if you’re that close to them, then you’re pretty much in no man’s land on the frontline. But certainly in the outskirts of Kyiv and other places in the east of the country, they’re seeing Russian troops. And, of course, on the coast, in areas like Odessa, they’ve got a large buildup of Russian ships, as well, because they’re fearing a massive attack from the sea. 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 speaking with people like the Ukrainian Red Cross. Talk about what you understand is happening. And people right now — I mean, 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. Right before the broadcast, it was bombed again.
BEL TREW: Yeah. I mean, when I spoke to the director general of the Ukrainian Red Cross — his teams, by the way, are responsible for opening those humanitarian corridors. They are the convoys that are on the ground, that are going in to rescue people. He told me they tried four days, consecutive days in a row, to get people out of Mariupol, and every single time their convoy was hit by shelling. He said to me they couldn’t get even a single truck of food into Mariupol. They couldn’t get medical supplies. And that’s why the attack on the hospital is so devastating, because medical supplies are so low already. And he actually told me that he estimates that people there have probably only got between three and five days left of food. We’re hearing reports about people melting snow for water, and they don’t have any heating. And I will tell you, it is minus temperatures here. It’s extremely cold. It’s snowing. And 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: Bel, as you know, the U.S and the U.K. yesterday expressed concerns that Russia may now deploy unconventional and even chemical weapons. You reported from Syria, on Syria, for over a decade, and people have drawn comparisons between Russian military strategy in Ukraine now and what it was in Syria. So, if you could respond to the concerns being expressed, and also your own experience reporting from Syria and now from Ukraine?
BEL TREW: Well, 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. And specifically since Russia entered the conflict in 2015, human rights organizations have documented the widespread use of banned weapons. So I’m talking about chemical weapons, incendiary weapons, cluster munitions, barrel bombs, either directly by Russian forces or Syrian forces, regime forces, supported by the Russians. They’ve literally thrown everything at Syrian civilians. There is no concept of international law in Syria. So the fear that I have is I’ve seen what they’re capable of doing in Syria. Can that happen in Ukraine? And while the situation here is desperate, and 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. And that is my really big fear, is if Russia feels it’s been put into a corner, it’s been isolated to the world. You know, I’ve seen what they’ve done in Syria. I’m very concerned for civilians here in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any sense of the casualties? Russian casualties, the Ukrainians are saying they’ve killed 12,000 Russian soldiers. Russia is saying there’s nothing like that number. I think they’ve thrown out a number of 500. We don’t know how many Ukrainian military deaths there are, even Ukrainian civilian deaths. Do you have a sense of this, Bel?
BEL TREW: Yeah, I mean, this is a big question, because of course we’re seeing very many different narratives. As you said, the Ukrainians are talking of over 10,000 Russian soldiers 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. The United Nations, I believe, is saying over 1,300, I think, casualties. That includes deaths and injuries that 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. The mayor of Mariupol has said that thousands of people within his own city have been killed in the last few days. No one can get there to even be able to verify that, and we’ve seen images coming out of that city of mass graves, of bodies just being put into trenches, basically. 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: Bel Trew, we want to go to another of your reports for The Independent, this near the Ukrainian border with Poland.
BEL TREW: Well, 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. And as you can see behind me, people have left their cars and are literally doing it on foot, 40 to 50 kilometers they’ve got to walk. It’s a seven- 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.
UKRAINIAN 1: It’s too far for me, because the 40 kilometers, we have to go in by walk.
BEL TREW: Fifty.
UKRAINIAN 1: Yeah, 50 kilometers.
BEL TREW: And you’re going to have to walk 50 kilometers?
UKRAINIAN 1: Yeah.
UKRAINIAN 2: Like I said before, I feel shame; exhausted, because it’s a long travel. And it’s not over, because, before us, 14 buses.
BEL TREW: Fourteen buses.
UKRAINIAN 2: Fourteen buses, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a report of Bel Trew. So, Bel, if you can describe, finally, the Ukraine side of the border? We’re going to talk to the Norwegian Refugee Council on the Polish side of the border. And then, also, how are you personally staying safe? Journalist after journalist has been wounded, has been shot.
BEL TREW: Well, yeah, I mean, absolutely. Just to talk about the refugees on the Ukrainian side of the border, I mean, the scenes have been utterly 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 mother and sister are now in occupied Kherson. His father is stuck in Odessa because he’s been signed up. And he himself is traveling on his own. And, you know, on top of that, as I said in the report before, people were walking 10, 12 hours in the freezing temperatures to get to the border, and sometimes they were being turned back. We had people in trains, you know, desperate to get on trains, people driving for days in cars across the country. It’s been utterly extraordinary. I mean, this is an extraordinary refugee crisis, as well.
And to answer your second question talking about keeping safe, I mean, we’ve seen horrendous footage, for example, of the British Sky News team who came under ambush. 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. So, really, it feels like the international rulebook has been thrown out the window, 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 right now?
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’ve 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. But, certainly, Vinnytsia behind me is among the more safer places. It’s just that I literally just came from the airport that had been bombed relatively recently.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bel Trew, we want to thank you for being with us, international correspondent for The Independent, usually based in Beirut, has been covering the war in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began last month, joining us from Vinnytsia, Ukraine. Please stay safe.