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Ukraine rejects Russia's demand to surrender the port city of Mariupol

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian officials are rejecting a Russian demand that they surrender the port city of Mariupol. The city has suffered some of the worst bombardment in nearly four weeks of war, including a recent strike on an art school where hundreds of people were taking refuge. Many of Mariupol's residents are trapped in an unfolding humanitarian disaster. I spoke to Lesia Vasylenko, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, who said Mariupol is turning into a horror akin to Bosnia's Srebrenica or the Syrian city of Aleppo.

LESIA VASYLENKO: It's an agglomeration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But everything I just said is just words and terms, and they are nothing compared to the tragedy that the people of Mariupol have to live through and are stuck in because of the Russian troops.

FADEL: There are reports of Russian troops forcibly removing residents of Mariupol to Russia. What do you know about this?

VASYLENKO: I hear the same reports. They are coming from the Ukrainian military. And unfortunately, there's nothing we can do because people who have been stuck for almost three weeks without food, without water, they are desperate, and they will take any way out. But the minute that they are made to cross the Russian border, we don't know where these people go. Some of them disappear in unknown directions. Some have reported that they are being taken as far out as Siberia. Essentially, what we are witnessing is the modern-day gulags.

FADEL: What is being done on the government level, the parliamentarian level? What are you pushing for in order to bring this to an end in Mariupol?

VASYLENKO: What Parliament can do at the moment is support the Ukrainian military. This is what the Ukrainian Parliament is doing. But at the same time, our Parliament is appealing time and time again to the international community, to foreign governments, foreign parliaments and also to the system of the United Nations to provide humanitarian aid for Ukraine and not just in the sense of the basic needs but also in the sense of providing a no-fly zone over Mariupol and other besieged cities of Ukraine. We are appealing to the International Committee of the Red Cross to be - to come back to Ukraine, to be present on the ground and to be providing the rights of safe passage to the millions of civilians who are stranded, not just in Mariupol but in other cities as well.

FADEL: But if they're on the ground, will they have access to places like Mariupol?

VASYLENKO: They can have access. And it's up to the international community to make that political decision and to make the only morally right and legitimate decision to come on the ground in Ukraine and help prevent even further crimes against humanity and war crimes that are being committed by the Russian Federation in the territory of Ukraine against the Ukrainian people.

FADEL: Recently, President Zelenskyy called for urgent talks to end this war. What is the status of diplomatic talks with Russia?

VASYLENKO: We are in talks. Ukraine is happy to have these talks. But I don't think that Russia is ready because Russia in these talks repeats time and time again that they want to see a demilitarized, neutral Ukraine. Russia wants to see Ukraine with huge chunks of Ukrainian territories cut off and recognized as territories of Russia or some kind of independent entities. And that just doesn't make sense to us.

FADEL: But Russia isn't backing down in its invasion. Ukraine isn't backing down in its fight to stop. Is the cost of fighting Russia at this point becoming too high?

VASYLENKO: What is the price of freedom? And what is the price of all the lives that have been lost already? This is the question that I ask every single time. And it's impossible to explain to the millions of Ukrainians who remain and who continue to stand up in unity against the biggest aggression of the 21st century. There's no words that can explain to them. That's it. We stop now. We give up. We give up our freedom. Because what Russia is trying to get Ukraine to do is to get us to give up our freedom, our right to free choice and our right to free existence as an independent country. There's nothing that Ukrainians value more than freedom. Life without freedom is no life for us.

FADEL: That was Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian Parliament member. She spoke to us from Poland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 22, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this audio interview, Ukrainian member of parliament Lesia Vasylenko called for the International Committee of the Red Cross to "come back to Ukraine." The ICRC says it has a team in Dnipro but not in Mariupol.