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Establishing humanitarian corridors out of Ukraine is a top priority

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is back in his office. He delivered a defiant address from the Capitol building in Kyiv. He said he isn't hiding, and he will insist on continued negotiations with Russia. The most urgent issue right now is getting people out of the country safely. But several attempts at setting up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians have failed. Even this morning, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ukraine said Russian forces are shelling an evacuation route out of the southern port city of Mariupol.

Jaime Nadal says humanitarian corridors are the only way to stop the civilian casualties. He is the representative to Ukraine at the United Nations Population Fund. He and his staff left Kyiv. Now he is in the southwest of the country.

JAIME NADAL: We still have a handful of colleagues who are in Kyiv, and in some cases, some of them - they want to be relocated, but currently the conditions are so complicated that it's proving to be quite challenging. Still, we are trying, and I hope that everybody will be able to be moved out of the city and be safe and sound.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the efforts to get civilians out. There have been these failed attempts to set up humanitarian corridors. Do you have any more information as to what the alternative is to get people out safely?

NADAL: Well, there are no alternative to humanitarian corridors. Humanitarian corridors need to be established. Establishing those corridors to let the population out of those areas and to let humanitarian aid into the areas is absolutely - it's a top priority right now.

MARTIN: Russia has suggested creating corridors that would take refugees to Russia or Belarus. The Ukrainian government has denied that option. What is the best way forward here?

NADAL: I'm not going to comment on that. I mean, we've been focusing on the corridor, for instance, between Mariupol and Dnipro, which is an area that is - has been severely hit by the attack and the military interventions. And we really need that corridor to be functional as soon as possible. We also need the corridor that would enable the U.N. and other humanitarian actors to be functional between the west of Ukraine, concretely the Polish border, and Kyiv and elsewhere, because we need to establish logistic hubs in the country that will enable us to reach out to the areas where the needs are.

MARTIN: Six hospitals, I understand, were bombed over the weekend. We are hearing several of them are without electricity, without water. Surgeries are being performed in basement shelters. How are nurses and doctors getting supplies?

NADAL: They are not, at this point. The complete supply chain is disrupted, and they are running very, very low of essential medicines and supplies. And again, this is posing a very serious threat to the lives of women and patients in general. But I mean, talking from the mandate of UNFPA, we look after women's reproductive health. We don't want any woman to lose her life giving birth. That's - you know, that's unacceptable. And yet we are seeing women having their deliveries in makeshift shelters, in basements of buildings, in metro stations by the hundreds, if not thousands right now. And this is a trend that is dramatic, is massive and is likely to worsen in the future unless the hostilities, the war stops immediately.

MARTIN: Yeah. Have you had conversations with these doctors, nurses and medical staff? How is their own morale? After all, they have to look after their own health and safety, that of their own families.

NADAL: We did a scanning of the situation of health facilities at the beginning of the war on the 24, 25 of February, but I have to confess that some areas - like Mariupol, for instance - we've been trying to reach out to them, and we have been unable to. Telephones are not working. Cell phones are not working. And there is no way to communicate with them.

MARTIN: What do you want the international community to know right now about what's happening there, what the need is?

NADAL: What I would like the international community to know is that women - women who may be pregnant, women who are on the move, running away from this madness of war - are at very high risk. And this is so absurd and unnecessary. There is nothing that justify that they have to go through this situation, and frankly, I mean, it's so horrendous, so heartbreaking to see what is happening in Ukraine. And Ukraine needs help. Ukraine really needs humanitarian actors, governments to provide assistance. We need the international community to act, to act together, to provide support to the humanitarian response that is being established. The U.N. has made already a flash appeal, seeking support from member states in order to make sure that these corridors, these humanitarian corridors, allow for the evacuation of civilian population, but also for the deployment of much-needed supplies to sustain basic lifesaving services, including reproductive health for pregnant women. And I hope that the international community will respond to this plea for support because it's really a dramatic situation that requires a massive, massive response from the international community. More people will die. It's as simple as that.

MARTIN: Jaime Nadal, representative to Ukraine at the United Nations Population Fund. He's speaking to us from a safe location in the western part of the country, where he and his staff have evacuated. Thank you so much for talking with us.

NADAL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.