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Red Cross prepares for the worst in eastern Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Grisly images of bodies covered with tarps have emerged from eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian officials say a Russian missile has slammed into a train station. The station was packed with people trying to flee before fighting intensifies. Ukrainian officials had been imploring people to get out of the Donbas region, something that's been difficult in many areas in the country as humanitarian routes have repeatedly come under attack. The International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine has been trying to help get people to safety. Pascal Hundt heads the ICRC's delegation in the country and joins us now from western Ukraine. Welcome.

PASCAL HUNDT: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be with you.

CHANG: These images that have come out of this attack on the train station - may I just ask you, when you first saw them, what thoughts went through your mind?

HUNDT: Outrage, shock, heartbreaking - this image with kids and shelling of civilians is something that is difficult to see even when you are experienced in war situation.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told NPR this morning that he does anticipate heavier fighting in the weeks and the months ahead as this war moves into a new phase. What is the Red Cross doing to prepare?

HUNDT: We are basically, if not everywhere but in a lot of places, we are really trying to be as close as possible to the frontline, to be with the people. So we are ready for the worst, but we are still hoping for the best because the suffering of the population is just immense here.

CHANG: Well, I want to ask about these humanitarian corridors that had been fired upon, like in Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, where these humanitarian routes have been attacked. The ICRC tried for five days to get in and, I understand, could only come within about 12 miles of Mariupol. Now, I understand that you did help escort a convoy of hundreds of people who had already made it out on their own. Can you talk about why you think it has been such a struggle to negotiate ceasefires and why these ceasefires keep failing?

HUNDT: Because these are complicated process. We are in the middle of an international armed conflict. We are in the middle of the fighting. From going through Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol, we have to pass many checkpoints. And, you know, when the parties agree at the capital, it doesn't mean necessarily that the orders are trickling down to the checkpoints. And sometimes, the cease-fire is extremely fragile.

So the progression towards Mariupol was extremely long. And just 12 miles before Mariupol, we then realized that the security conditions were not possible because we could hear some fighting. So that's why we tried for many days. As we didn't get all the security guarantees, we decided to go back. We collected people along the road. We collected people in Berdyansk. We had buses with us. And the more we were moving towards territory controlled by the Ukrainian government...

CHANG: Right.

HUNDT: ...We saw cars, private cars, joining the convoy because they saw the flag of the Red Cross. And we ended up in Zaporizhzhia with seven buses, more than 150 cars and 1,000 people - 1,000 people who managed to flee Mariupol and to flee hell, basically. But this is not enough. We don't want that the suffering of Mariupol becomes the future of Ukraine.

CHANG: Well, let me ask, is the Red Cross having conversations with Russian contacts to facilitate access in and out of besieged areas?

HUNDT: We are in daily contact with both the Ukrainians and the Russians.

CHANG: Do you feel that your communications with the Russians have been reliable?

HUNDT: We present our humanitarian concern, and we wait the Ukrainians and the Russians to agree on the safe passage in order that we can move safely with the population. The difficulty is, is that an agreement at the capital level needs to be worked out in order that the soldiers at the checkpoints are aware of the agreement and respect the orders. And this is really a complex endeavor.

CHANG: Right. Well, what are the areas that you feel need the most right now? Where is the Red Cross focusing its efforts?

HUNDT: Yeah, the needs are immense. Focusing in the hotspots - that's the work of the ICRC - the frontlines. We are present in the Donbas. You know, the needs are so big that we are trying to be a bit everywhere, and we are scaling our response.

CHANG: Well, is the focus of the Red Cross, at least in the immediate term, determined more by need or by simply where your people can get in?

HUNDT: It's not only getting in and doing cross-line operation because this is maybe the most difficult part of our job. Because of the mandate of the Red Cross, we are doing this job as neutral intermediary between the warring sides, and this is an important role. But there are area that are less affected by the hostilities or that were previously affected by the hostilities. And here, we have access.

North of Kyiv, the main problem we had was the heavy contamination of unexploded ordnance. This was dangerous for us, for the population. Bridges have been destroyed. Roads have been destroyed. So in terms of logistics, this is not easy to reach. But we are doing everything to reach this population and to provide them with assistance.

CHANG: Pascal Hundt is the head of the delegation at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine. Thank you very much for joining us today, and best of luck to you and your team.

HUNDT: Thank you so much for receiving me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVIA RODRIGO SONG, "GOOD 4 U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.