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Examining the humanitarian crisis parallels, created by war, in Ukraine and Syria


Some 3 1/2 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion a month ago. A further 6 1/2 million are internally displaced. Now, with the number of cities under attack, food and water are dwindling in some places. Aid agencies and humanitarian groups are working to get supplies in and get people out safely. Now, one of those groups is the International Rescue Committee, or IRC. Bob Kitchen is vice president of emergencies and humanitarian action. Bob, many parts of Ukraine are besieged right now, coming under attack from Russian airstrikes and bombardments. Some are drawing parallels with the tactics used in the war in Syria. The IRC, your group, was in Syria from the start. Are you noticing any similar patterns between the two countries?

BOB KITCHEN: Absolutely. The outflow of people that you just spoke to, 3 1/2 million people moving into multiple countries and then moving onwards down into Europe, feels very familiar. So we're working with local organizations and governments and those neighboring countries and then inside Ukraine itself. While it has happened in a much shorter period of time where Syria took a lot longer to develop in this way with besiegements and ongoing bombardment of cities, it's feeling very similar.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, we're seeing Russian troops surrounding cities such as Mariupol, effectively cutting off supply routes. How do you work around that?

KITCHEN: Well, it's a combination of working around it and then trying our best to work through it. So right now, we have staff in the west and center of Ukraine moving down towards the areas that are besieged. Our intent is to identify and start working with local organizations, local communities and activists who themselves are in need but are sacrificing a great deal by moving people out of these besieged cities as they can and then taking aid back in. Mariupol is incredibly difficult, and we're fighting against the clock to make a difference there. But Ukrainians know best. They know how to move between lines, move between the fighting. And over time, I expect them to find ways to get supplies into even these besieged cities.

MARTÍNEZ: Are you surprised by the numbers and the speed at which people are fleeing Ukraine or trying to get out?

KITCHEN: Yes. We were in Poland three weeks prior to the conflict. We saw this coming. We deployed a team in to get ready. The Polish government was saying that they were ready to receive a million refugees. We felt that that was a proportional level of preparedness. Within a few short days and weeks, that million figure had been surpassed. So the speed and scale at which people moved was a surprise to - I think, for everyone involved. But it was proportional to the level of violence that happened so rapidly across the country.

MARTÍNEZ: And what are you able to do for the refugees leaving Ukraine right now?

KITCHEN: We're in Poland, we're in Moldova, and we're operating across Germany and Greece, Italy and in the U.K. - so very proximate to the border. We're working with Polish organizations to provide first aid, counseling and basic supplies on the border. And then our own programs are focusing on where refugees move to after they've crossed. And then we're seeking ways to deliver very, very large-scale cash programming in the big cities to Ukrainians. We believe it's best to give individuals who have lost control, who have - their lives have changed overnight, give them the decision-making power as to what their most urgent needs are by giving them cash so they can go to the local market and buy what they need. That also invests in the local market, which keeps the very high levels of welcome we're seeing across Europe.

MARTÍNEZ: Considering what the situation is right now, and I realize it could change just in a moment, what would you say is your main concern going forward right now?

KITCHEN: We've talked big numbers, but the biggest number on my mind at the moment is the 12 million people who are living in besieged or very heavily conflict-affected cities who haven't been able to displace. As you said, the besieged cities, we're hearing reports out of them. Some have three or four days' worth of food left. So we really are on a clock to try and get aid in there. Otherwise, we're going to start seeing people just dying through starvation.

MARTÍNEZ: I know that the world's attention is squarely focused on Ukraine, and given the circumstances, that's fully warranted. But are you concerned at all about impacts on other parts of the world that are in need right now of humanitarian support - Yemen, Afghanistan, for instance?

KITCHEN: I'm incredibly worried. This is the fastest developing and very close to being the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, definitely in Europe. But we've got other big things going on in the Horn, in East Africa. Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia import the vast majority of their grain from Russia and Ukraine, and with those markets now either closed or sanctioned, they were already facing massive food insecurity, which is going to be turbocharged by this crisis. It's incredibly worrying.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Bob Kitchen. He is vice president of emergencies and humanitarian action with International Rescue Committee. Bob, thank you very much.

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

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