At nearly two weeks since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian troops are reported to have moved closer to capital Kiev and Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv. Intense fighting has been reported on the ground at various places in the country, including in the southern port city of Mariupol. The fighting has led to large-scale destruction of critical infrastructure and deaths of hundreds of civilians and troops. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over two million people have been forced to flee the country, resulting in a fresh refugee crisis in Europe.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact scale of the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has refused the Russian proposal of a temporary ceasefire to provide a humanitarian corridor for those who want to leave war zones. It remains difficult to establish the actual number of civilians killed in the conflict so far. The absence of an authoritative source to verify facts on the ground has led to exaggerated claims of civilian casualties and disinformation campaigns unleashed by both sides using unverified figures.
According to the UN, at least 406 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and more than 801 have been wounded since the Russia-led war began last week. The Ukrainian government claims that at least 2,000 civilians have been killed in the war so far.
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that 498 of its soldiers have been killed and over 1,600 wounded since the start of the offensive in Ukraine. However, Ukraine claims that the actual death toll of Russians in the war so far is much higher. Though it has refused to reveal the number of casualties in its own armed forces, the Ukrainian military claims that over 11,000 Russian servicemen have been killed. As per the Russian military, at least 2,870 Ukrainian soldiers and militias have been killed in the fighting so far, with over 3,700 wounded. It also claims to have taken nearly 572 Ukrainian soldiers as prisoners.
Meanwhile, with regards to the Donbass region, the UN, as on March 7, stated that at least 93 civilians had been killed and over 435 injured in attacks by the Ukrainians forces inside the residential areas. The Donbass republics’ militias claim that most of these attacks were carried out by neo-Nazi groups embedded in the Ukrainian army.
The World Health Organization (WHO), citing local unconfirmed sources, claimed that hospitals and health infrastructure in the country have been attacked by the warring sides and there is a growing shortage of oxygen and other essential medicines. According to the official Ukrainian claims to the press, at least 34 hospitals have been destroyed due to the war. Ukraine has also claimed that due to destruction of civilian infrastructure, supplies of water and sanitation facilities have been affected in various parts of the country, particularly in Mariupol which is surrounded by Russian forces. Until March 3, the WHO claimed that at least 470,000 people in Ukraine lost their access to water.
Growing refugee crisis
Close to two million people have been forced to flee their homes in Ukraine and take shelter in neighboring countries, with some also going to Russia. According to the UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), the number of displaced people in Ukraine is set to increase further as Russian forces continue to advance in major cities like Kiev and Kharkiv. It has asked for individual donations from people to finance its efforts to provide basic amenities to the refugees.
Last week, UNHCR head Filippo Grandi called the war in Ukraine senseless and asked for immediate cessation of hostilities to keep the number of people displaced from rising further.
As of now, many European Union (EU) member countries have opened their doors to the refugees. Poland hosts the largest number of refugees (100,000), followed by Hungary and Moldova. Over 57,000 Ukrainian refugees are also in Russia, according to the UNHCR.
TASS additionally reported that as of March 3, a total of 166,000 people had been evacuated by Russian forces from Donbass and other regions in Ukraine. Russia claims to have received at least two million requests for evacuation from foreign citizens and Ukrainians as local Ukrainian authorities have failed to evacuate them.
Russia also claimed that evacuations have increased due to heavy shelling of residential areas in the Donbass region by the Ukrainian army and the neo-Nazi militia Azov.
Evacuation of civilians trapped in war zones
Thousands of people have been forced to take shelter in bunkers in cities like Kiev, Kharkiv and others where Russian forces have stepped up strikes. There have been several different rounds of deliberations on how humanitarian corridors would be established as well as varying degrees of fulfillment of promises. During the third round of talks between Ukraine and Russia in Belarus, both parties agreed to provide safe passage to citizens.
However, Sputnik reported that in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces and the neo-Nazi Azov Battallion have denied trapped citizens safe passage to leave with the intention of using them as human shields against advancing Russian troops.
On Monday, March 7, Russia had announced a temporary ceasefire to help evacuate civilians trapped in war zones in Ukraine. According to TASS, Russian forces halted their attack in the four major cities of Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Sumi from 10:00 am on Monday. Russian forces also provided details of various routes through which citizens could be evacuated. Russian forces had earlier announced similar safe passage for citizens trapped in Kiev as well. However, the Ukrainian government refused the Russian proposals on Monday, Russia then re-issued the proposal on Tuesday.
A large number of foreign students are still stuck in war zones due to failure of their respective countries to initiate timely evacuation. Some of these students have been forced to stay back and are facing discrimination by the local authorities. According to Russian president Vladimir Putin, at least 3,000 Indian students were kept hostage by the Ukrainian forces. “Nationalists and Neo-Nazi groups, foreign mercenaries, including those from the Middle East, are using civilians as human shields,” Putin claimed. India denied these claims later.