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On International Women’s Day, Ukrainian LGBTQI Activist Describes Russian Siege as Millions Flee

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released a video on Monday to admonish Russia for breaking promises to let Ukrainian citizens evacuate safely through “humanitarian corridors,” as Russian forces have continued to lay siege to civilian centers. We go to western Ukraine to speak with Olena Shevchenko, Ukrainian human rights and LGBTI activist who recently fled the Russian military assault on Kyiv with her parents and has been helping to evacuate others. Vulnerable communities such as disabled and transgender people have a more difficult time fleeing to safety, says Shevchenko.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has entered its 13th day. The United Nations says over 2 million refugees have now fled Ukraine in the largest exodus in Europe since World War II. Ukrainian officials say civilian evacuations have begun after Russia announced a temporary ceasefire in some of the hardest-hit areas, including the northeastern city of Sumy, where 21 people, including two children, were reported killed in airstrikes just hours before the evacuations began. But Ukraine has accused Russia of shelling civilians fleeing Mariupol, the besieged southern port where many residents have gone days without food or water. Russia is also accused of continuing to attack civilians in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has been devastated by days of Russian attacks. One Ukrainian woman named Maryna said she was hit by shrapnel from Russia’s shelling when she went to donate blood. She spoke to Reuters while sitting in a wheelchair at a hospital.

MARYNA: [translated] My brother and I came to give blood, and we were shelled. The blood transfusion center was shelled. We had just left the center, and we were shelled by Russian occupiers. And my brother died on the second day, February 27th. And I remained in hospital with shrapnel wounds in my legs.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president, called on all forces to stop targeting civilians.

MICHELLE BACHELET: Since the council’s urgent debate, the number of civilian casualties has continued to grow. I’m deeply concerned about civilians trapped in active hostilities in numerous areas, and I urge all parties to take effective action to enable all civilians, including those in situations of vulnerability, to safely leave areas affected by conflict. The office has received reports of arbitrary detention of pro-Ukrainian activists in areas that have recently come under the control of armed groups in the east of the country. We have also received reports of beatings of people considered to be pro-Russian in government-controlled territories. I repeat my urgent call for a peaceful end to hostilities.

AMY GOODMAN: As we mark International Women’s Day, we’re joined by Olena Shevchenko, Ukrainian human rights defender, LGBTI activist, recently fled Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, with her parents and relocated to Lviv in western Ukraine.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Olena. It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you just tell us about that journey, what that meant — we’ll be showing a map right now of Ukraine — going from Kyiv to Lviv? How did your parents handle it? How did you? And why did you go?

OLENA SHEVCHENKO: Hi. Well, honestly, it was a very hard and long way. And it started just day before we left, because I was able to transfer my parents from the left bank of the city to the right bank, and it took four hours by taxi. And the taxi cost us more than 300 of euros. So you can imagine, for instance, for those people who don’t have any money, for instance, in occupied cities, in Kharkiv and Kyiv now, in Mariupol, how they can get out. It’s almost not possible.

And we had just two options to leave the city. It’s the train and the bus. And the train station, this is obviously not even possible to get on the train, because the queues are like for two or three days. And the most — those of vulnerable communities, I mean, people with disabilities, for instance, women with children, they don’t have any chances to get on the trains, because this is the huge fight between those who want to leave Ukraine. And it took almost 24 hours to go to the safer place.

So, yeah, now I am in Lviv, because it’s not possible anymore to stay there without electricity, without water, without heat. It’s not even possible to do something like to help, because we are working now via internet connection. We are trying to help people to escape from those cities. So, it’s not — I don’t have any sense to be there without such things. So now I am in Lviv, and we establish the shelters here for those who are able to escape, at least.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Olena, you’ve been — as you said, you’ve been helping others who are trying to get to safer regions. Could you talk about some of the people that you’ve been helping and their stories?

OLENA SHEVCHENKO: You know, I have so many stories now, and I am not sure if anybody actually want to hear those stories, because mainly stories are about those people who can’t even leave their houses because they don’t have any access to elevators anymore, and they are still at homes, women who are trying to get out with their parents, people with disabilities, like I said, like elderly people, those who are sick. So, I don’t know how to help them. And we receive like thousands of messages every day, and you just suffer because you can’t help anymore. You can help, I don’t know, 10, 20 people a day, but that’s thousands of requests.

Especially — I’m not talking just about LGBTQI people. We also — the founder of the Women’s March, the huge initiative. Basically, we received through our social networks from different women, from different cities, the requests for help. They don’t have medicines. They don’t have food. They don’t have any chances to survive. Just yesterday, we received a message from two people on the wheelchairs who said they are in Bucha, very near the Kyiv, without anything, in a basement, and nobody knows who will go there and save them. I am not sure if they’re still alive.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the Women’s March. Today is International Women’s Day. Could you talk about the impact especially of this invasion and the fighting now on women and children, and your message to the international community?

OLENA SHEVCHENKO: My message to international community, you know, that this is not what women invent, I mean, in terms of the war. That’s not something we invent. But we are in the center of this war. We are on the center of this humanitarian crisis, because women now everywhere. And we heard so many cases now of rapes in these occupied cities. Like, I heard like a woman scream. Then those Russian troops just send in the videos. And I hear the sound of screaming of women who are in the same time raped by soldiers. I don’t think this is — like, it’s not about heroism. It’s not like about heroes. War is a disaster for everybody, and it needs to be stopped, because that’s not about human rights. That’s not about geopolitic. That’s just a disaster. Why somebody needs to come to other places, just, you know, with this aim to put the flag on some buildings and said, like, “Now it’s mine”? So, women are still seen as some things which can be taken. So, basically, that’s still about the power.

And that’s why we are in need to more solidarity around the world, not only women, everybody, against the war, against the violence. So it was our main message for today’s manifestation, which we prepared during the year. But it’s not possible now to go to the streets. So that’s why we’re asking others, other women in different cities, in different countries, go to the streets and say no to war, say no to violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about reports of trans Ukrainians unable to leave because their gender identity on their passport did not match their gender identity — that’s the case of trans people — and the whole issue of having to show a passport, which so many people do not have, and the discrimination against Roma, Black students who are in Ukraine trying to flee, who we interviewed.

OLENA SHEVCHENKO: Yeah, that’s the case. It’s almost not possible for those people who have these male documents still or for other trans people to cross the border, because during the war they need to be on the war by law. So, basically, they don’t have any possibility to leave the country. That’s why they are staying in our shelters. And, of course, there is an option, like you said, for Roma people, as well, just to trying to cross the border without documents, but it’s also very problematic, even taking into account that we’ve been said by different bodies — I don’t know — in Ukraine and different countries that it will be possible for people without documents to cross the border, but it’s not.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Olena, about a group in Ukraine that is trying to reach out to Russian parents or people, relatives of Russians who are looking for their loved ones, Russian soldiers in Ukraine, to see if they’re dead. It’s an antiwar hotline. And people call in, and the Ukrainians try to get information on those Russian soldiers — these efforts we so rarely hear about of peace across borders.

OLENA SHEVCHENKO: I don’t know what to say. Yes, we have many small initiatives which are trying to still talk about peace. And, of course, it’s not like the highly popular theme right now in Ukraine or in other countries, of course. Everybody is more concentrated on, you know, winning something or who will be the winner of this war. But I don’t think that this is the good action to make. So, basically, yes, many people trying to somehow make the connections. And, of course, for those who live in Russia, I mean, for mothers, first of all, it’s really important to know what happened with their children. I personally don’t think they need to be responsible for Putin’s actions. I think they need to know the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, Olena Shevchenko, we thank you so much for being with us, Ukrainian human rights defender, LGBTQI activist, recently fled Kyiv with her parents and relocated to Lviv in western Ukraine.

Next up, we go to Moscow to speak with the head of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which has been ordered shut down as part of a widening crackdown on Russian civil society, as we continue to honor International Women’s Day. Stay with us.

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The Silencing of Dissent: Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Center Faces Closure Amid Putin’s Crackdown

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