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Attacks persist on Ukrainian steel plant, where some people managed to flee

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian officials say Russian forces are still trying to take control of Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks. The plant is where Ukrainian fighters and civilians have been holding out for weeks. The reports of fierce fighting come as Russia says it will hold to a three-day ceasefire of its assault to allow civilians to evacuate. Earlier this week, some were able to escape. The International Committee of the Red Cross is helping organize those evacuations, and Chris Hanger, with the ICRC, is on the line from Zaporizhzhia.

CHRIS HANGER: Good morning.

FADEL: If you could just start by describing the role of the ICRC in arranging these evacuations.

HANGER: So we had a safe passage operation that lasted five days that brought people from the Azovstal plant - civilians, elderly, women and children - to Zaporizhzhia. It was a five-day operation, very complicated. But in the end, these people are now in a safer place. At the same time, just yesterday night, we managed to do another safe passage operation to get over 300 civilians out of the area in Mariupol. So this is another success and another safe passage operation, and our role as a neutral intermediary in this type of conflict is to really try to facilitate the dialogue with the parties through the conflict to make sure that really practical agreements are found so that civilians can get to safety.

FADEL: How many people have you been able to get out?

HANGER: So out of the Azovstal plant, it was several dozens - mainly children, mainly women, mainly elderly. We've - at the same time, in the surrounding areas around Mariupol, we've managed to get more than 100 people out. And yesterday, more than 300 civilians came to Zaporizhzhia in another safe passage operation, which - these civilians came from Mariupol, but also surrounding villages like Manhush, Berdyansk and Tokmak.

FADEL: What are people saying who have gotten safe passage - who've been able to get out of Mariupol and the surrounding areas on these buses? What are they saying about what they've been through?

HANGER: When our teams spoke to them - I mean, one thing that struck them is, really, it's the first time - the people that we got out of the Azovstal plant - that it's been over two months they've not seen the sky...

FADEL: Oh.

HANGER: ...So they had no idea what was going on around them. They only heard fighting - intense fighting around them. But obviously, they were relieved when they were able to see the sun again, but they saw destruction. So they saw their home, their city, completely destroyed. And, of course, they were in a deep state of shock. Women were crying. Men were staying silent. There was actually a priest, and a lot of people were asking for a priest, so this shows you a little bit the level of trauma and devastation these people have seen and been through. And they kept asking us - are we safe? Are we going to be OK? Where are we going? And that shows you, really, how deeply traumatized these people have been after two months in such a horrible, dire situation.

FADEL: And now that they're in Zaporizhzhia, what happens to them next?

HANGER: So, of course, there are these immediate needs that people think of - that we see from images, that we hear from people. There were people, for example, that had broken - they had fractures, so they needed to have direct medical care. There was a pregnant woman. There were people, of course, that didn't have access to medication - so people with diabetes, they needed to be cared for. At the same time, now, people, of course, need a place to stay, so there are different organizations working on this on the ground in Zaporizhzhia, helping these people to find shelter. At the same time, I think I want to stress that it's - I think we can't really imagine what these people have been through, and there's obviously a huge need for psychological support. And that's something - our teams also work across Ukraine on this because the mental scars of these type of situations will take years to process.

FADEL: Hmm. How many civilians are now left behind in Mariupol, and what are their prospects of getting out?

HANGER: So it's obviously a very difficult situation. There are reports that there is renewed fighting, and this is an active conflict, so we don't have specific numbers on the people that are still trapped, but not only in Mariupol and not only in the Azovstal plant, but across Ukraine. And we are in constant dialogue to get these people to safety if they wish to leave, and we hope that those who are still trapped can find a safe way out with the support of the ICRC or other organizations.

FADEL: Chris Hanger with the International Committee of the Red Cross. He joined us from Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine. Thank you so much for your time.

HANGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.