Efforts to help thousands of desperate residents flee the embattled Ukrainian city of Mariupol continued on Friday, as humanitarians warned that there is “no Plan B”, after weeks of constant shelling since the Russian invasion on 24 February.

The development follows an initial attempt to evacuate civilians from the southern port city at the beginning of March, when a resumption in hostilities ultimately dashed hopes of safe passage for those wanting to leave.

Uncertainty for residents

“We remain hopeful, we are in action, moving towards Mariupol, that is obviously a good thing; but it is not yet clear that this will happen today,” said Ewan Watson, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“If and when it does happen, the ICRC’s role as a mutual intermediary will be to lead the convoy out from Mariupol to another city in Ukraine. We are unable to confirm which city at the moment, as this is something the parties must agree to.”

Convoy ready

More than 50 buses are expected to roll out of Mariupol, accompanied by other civilian and ICRC vehicles, providing a “humanitarian marker on this movement of people…giving the convoy additional protection”, the ICRC spokesperson told journalists in Geneva.

“There is no plan B here, we have been working for weeks and telling the media about our efforts to get into Mariupol with aid and to allow the safe passage of civilians out of the city.

Time is running out for the people of Mariupol.”

Worsening ‘by the hour’

Across Ukraine, humanitarian needs continue to worsen and spread “by the hour”, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned.

The agency has delivered life-saving food assistance, including ready-to-eat food, bread and cash assistance, to one million people affected by the war. “People are stressed and they are running out of options,” said WFP spokesperson Tomson Phiri. “Our plan … is to support more and more people, we want to reach at least three million people in the coming weeks and months”, he added.

A man holds a dog as he walks past a damaged house following shelling in Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine.

© UNICEF/Evgeniy Maloletka

A man holds a dog as he walks past a damaged house following shelling in Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine.

The WFP has already prepositioned close to 40,000 tonnes of food, wheat flour and food rations in Ukraine and neighbouring countries for distribution.

Outside Ukraine, the agency plans to support 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have sought shelter in neighbouring countries, some of the 4.1 million who have fled fighting, according to latest UN Refugee Agency data.

UN Support for Kharkiv, Sumy

Despite the continuing violence which has included shelling and street fighting, “WFP has delivered food to vulnerable families in the encircled cities of Kharkiv and Sumy, through two interagency humanitarian convoys that have reached the conflict-hit areas”, Mr. Phiri said. 

“One of the biggest challenges we face here is that there are not that many humanitarian partners who are able to work in besieged places.”

In Kharkiv, WFP has also distributed 330,000 loaves of freshly baked bread and it is expanding this bakery initiative to other cities, with the aim of delivering another 990,000 loaves in the coming weeks. 

WFP has also delivered stocks of rapid-response food packages in Dnipro and Kirovohrad in central Ukraine, and in Vinnytsia in the centre-western region, for inter-agency crossline convoys and for use by WFP partners. 

In areas indirectly affected by the war and where food is available and retail shops are operating normally, WFP has started providing cash or vouchers as a means of support, Mr Phiri explained.