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"No doubt we are failing the people of Mariupol," U.N. relief official says

Ukrainian defenders don't surrender Mariupol
Ukrainian defenders pass Moscow's deadline to surrender Mariupol 06:24

As Russian forces continue to besiege the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the head of U.N. emergency relief efforts offered a grim assessment of the situation on the ground: "No doubt we are failing the people of Mariupol," Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator said Monday.

"It's a place I've described as a center of hell," he said. 

He said the U.N. receives offers "day by day" to create humanitarian corridors that are "not cleared by" one side or the other, and families have been trapped. 

"We don't really know the numbers of people still caught and blocked and unable to get out from Mariupol," Griffith said.

Mariupol has been under relentless bombardment for seven weeks, leaving much of the city in ruins. Officials estimate roughly 21,000 people there have been killed, and 120,000 are still in the city, which is nearly encircled by Russian forces. 

"The situation in Mariupol is both dire militarily and heartbreaking. The city doesn't exist anymore," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Sunday on "Face the Nation."

Russian attacks on Ukraine
A view of the damage in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, under attack by the Russian military and pro-Russian separatists, on April 9, 2022. Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"This is something, which as each week goes by, is becoming more difficult," Griffith said, "this is a generational problem that we're going to have to face."

The U.N. refugee agency says nearly 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the war began on February 24. A smaller number — over 870,000 people — have now returned, as Russian troops pulled back from  areas around Kyiv to focus on fighting in the east.The influx leaves the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), which Griffiths heads, "concerned about deteriorating food security."

Despite security concerns, "most Ukrainians want to return as quickly as possible and as long as they can be safe," Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told CBS News on Monday. 

A view shows Donetsk Regional Theatre of Drama destroyed by an airstrike in Mariupol
A view shows Donetsk Regional Theatre of Drama destroyed by an airstrike amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on March 16, 2022.  Donetsk Regional Civil-Military Administration/Handout via REUTERS

The U.N. has rallied agencies that are staying on the ground in Ukraine to be a lifeline for food, clean water and medicine but have been powerless to stop what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the U.N. Security Council nations earlier this month was the devastation of his country, where Russian troops "killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies." The Ukraine Prosecutor General and the International Criminal Court as well as the U.N. Human Rights Council and several countries have begun to collect evidence for investigations of war crimes, amid widespread reports that Russian forces deliberately killed civilians

Griffiths, who has traveled to several countries, most recently speaking with officials in Moscow and Kyiv, said mediation efforts have not yet succeeded. He said his agency has asked both countries to meet to  discuss humanitarian proposals including a ceasefire, monitoring, safe passage, corridors, and other priorities, and he is traveling to Turkey this week to follow through on President Erdogan's effort to mediate. 

Griffiths said that the international agencies need several-day windows to evacuate civilians, and Russia has not given those yet. Although UNOCHA has "had a number of successful movements of convoys," he said the number is "completely inadequate."

Asked about the places where the war is still raging, Griffiths expressed great concern for the region in the east. "Donbas is enormously worrying… it is the center of gravity of the war, of course."

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