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Ukraine latest: a dire need for humanitarian aid

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's war in Ukraine will soon have lasted a month. In that time, major Ukrainian cities have been bombed relentlessly. The United Nations says at least 900 civilians have been killed, and likely many more. And though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy still says negotiations are the way to end the war, the two sides are too far apart to reach a deal anytime soon.

NPR's Becky Sullivan is in Lviv in western Ukraine, and she's with us now to give us the latest. Becky, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Yeah. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: First, let's start with the humanitarian aid situation, which you've been looking into. What can you tell us about this?

SULLIVAN: The need for aid is huge here. I mean, the scale really can't be overstated. The latest numbers from the U.N. say that there are 6.5 million internally displaced people, which means Ukrainians who have left their homes but are still inside the country. About 3.4 million have fled altogether. And then on top of all of that, there are 13 more million people still living in the places where the fighting is taking place. And so just put another way, that's more than half of the country directly impacted by this, which is just staggering.

In the last few days, I've spoken to representatives both from the U.N.'s Refugee Agency and from the International Committee of the Red Cross, both of which report that they're working hard to get aid to people. They've set up warehouses in cities across Ukraine, working to get aid flowing from west to east. The biggest needs right now, they say, are shelter. For all those people who are leaving their homes, they, of course, need a place to stay, at least for a few nights in some of these cities that are closer to the conflict to get on their feet, collect their documents. And in longer term, the U.N. says they're looking into converting buildings into longer-term shelters that can collectively house thousands while people find housing or wait to return home.

MARTIN: Now, and we've heard about the need for humanitarian corridors out of these places. How is that working?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. This has been a huge deal, too. The U.N.'s Office for Human Affairs negotiates these things directly with Ukraine and Russia. I talked today to a representative from the U.N. who says the negotiations have been, quote, "incredibly challenging," and some of them have worked. Just today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said about 6,600 people were able to evacuate yesterday along eight of these humanitarian corridors, most of them in the Kyiv area or in Luhansk, which is one of these contested regions in eastern Ukraine. And more than 4,000 people were able to leave Mariupol, he said, which is, of course, the city on the southern coast that you might have heard about, where Russian airstrikes have hit a theater and an arts school in recent days, according to city officials, where they say civilians were taking shelter.

But Karolina Lindholm Billing - she is the U.N.'s Refugee Agency's representative in Ukraine. She told me that those aren't official U.N.-negotiated corridors that would also allow for assurance for aid groups to safely deliver relief to these places.

KAROLINA LINDHOLM BILLING: It's not enough to say, yes, yes, we will hold the cease-fire during this period. There really has to be also guarantees on the details, like where are the positions, you know, of the troops at the time of the cease-fire start?

SULLIVAN: And even if there is a cease-fire, there are still just some logistical concerns. Like, for example, the main road from Dnipro to Mariupol is now either just damaged by fighting, or there are big, burned-out vehicles blocking the road, she says. Or - and there are mines in some places, which, of course, make it very dangerous for aid groups to travel.

MARTIN: So what can you tell us about the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to end this?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Those are ongoing. They've been on for weeks, just taking place off and on between diplomats and representatives. Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin have not taken part in negotiations themselves directly. Zelenskyy has been calling for these direct talks between the two leaders. He repeated that call today, talking to CNN through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I'm ready for negotiations with him. I think that without negotiations, we cannot end this war.

SULLIVAN: But Putin so far has turned that down. And so although the sides have reported, you know, more of a productive tone in recent days, they still seem quite far apart on the biggest issues, like whether Ukraine can be part of NATO, whether Russia can make any security guarantees after this is over and then what the future is of these Ukrainian areas that are held by Russians now.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Becky Sullivan in Lviv, which is in western Ukraine. Becky, thank you so much.

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

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.