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The ICRC connects families with POWs on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war


The International Committee of the Red Cross has been able to connect families to POWs on both sides of the Ukraine war. And there are many more that they're hoping to reach through negotiations with the Ukrainian and Russian governments. The organization is also providing humanitarian aid to the millions who have fled Ukraine or who have stayed in the country and are living in dire conditions. Martin Schuepp is director of operations for the ICRC. And he spoke with my colleague, A Martínez.


So tell us about the work you're doing in Ukraine and in Russia.

MARTIN SCHUEPP: There's millions who have been displaced, but also hundreds of thousands, millions, who are still staying behind and are often living under very difficult circumstances with barely a roof over their head. We try to support them as good as we can, providing often the very basics. It can be as simple as a heating point, a charging point for a phone or reestablishing water points so that people can have access to the very basics.

MARTÍNEZ: And you mentioned some of the basics that they lack and how something that seemingly is so little for maybe us, charging our phone, is so vital for them. It's a lifeline to just get in contact with anyone that's familiar to them or maybe even family.

SCHUEPP: Indeed. I've spoken about the material conditions. But you should not underestimate also the impact on the mental well-being of such a conflict. And as you rightly say, staying in contact with family members is particularly important at times of conflict.

MARTÍNEZ: Martin, does the Red Cross have an estimate of how many have been taken prisoner in the war so far?

SCHUEPP: I can't speak to numbers of how many prisoners there are in this particular conflict. But, indeed, we need to estimate that there are thousands who have been taking prisoner since over the last year.

MARTÍNEZ: What about the conditions that you've been hearing about when it comes to those camps?

SCHUEPP: We have been able to visit prisoners of war in this conflict on both sides. And one of the main goals for us is, indeed, to assess the conditions of the prisoners and to discuss our findings as well confidentially with those who are holding them. And we are not sharing what we see precisely in public, but rather share recommendations that we observe with the authorities.

MARTÍNEZ: Are there any stories that you can share, Martin, from people that have been just looking for any sign of any family members at some of these camps?

SCHUEPP: We've received over 50,000 emails and phone calls over the last 12 months from relative inquiring about the safety and well-being and being worried about it. And sometimes the stories are really heart-wrenching and heartwarming. I just have one story in mind of a mother, a spouse, who called us and then put the little girl on the phone, who just wanted to make sure that we pass the message to her father that she forgives him for missing her birthday and that she hopes that he will be back soon.

MARTÍNEZ: When people think of the Red Cross, they think or at least they imagine that it means hope, hope that something is being done. What do you tell people?

SCHUEPP: Indeed, as the International Committee of the Red Cross and as humanitarians, we cannot give up hope. We need to work every day because people approach us in hope that we are able to find their brother, to find their son, to find their daughter and that we can provide help and that we can provide support. We've been able to transmit information over 9,000 times to family members about somebody who might have been missing or separated.

MARTÍNEZ: Typically, Martin, how long does it take to find people? And how likely are you to find people?

SCHUEPP: There is really no typical answer to that. It can be that somebody calls us and we have already registered somebody as a prisoner. And we can immediately say, look; we know this person. And you could write a message to him that we could transmit so that he has some news from you or vice versa. So that can go very fast. But also, from other contexts outside the current conflict we're talking about, we know how long it can sometimes take to find information.

MARTÍNEZ: Martin Schuepp, director of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Martin, thank you.

SCHUEPP: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.