July 5, 2022

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'It took two months to tell my mother I was in Ukraine': a UN Brazilian tells how he helped people in a devastated city |  Ukraine and Russia

‘It took two months to tell my mother I was in Ukraine’: a UN Brazilian tells how he helped people in a devastated city | Ukraine and Russia

Saviano Abreu, from Minas Gerais, spent two months in Ukraine and, as a UN employee, helped negotiate the evacuation of hundreds of civilians who were at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

The port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine was the scene of one of the war’s fiercest conflicts. Trapped for more than two months, residents were left without access to water, supplies or power. The city was completely destroyed. The Azovstal steel plant was the last place of resistance before the city was completely occupied by Russian forces.

“We need to know exactly what is happening in each location, and how many people are affected by a particular crisis,” he said.

Abreu joined the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 2017. He has worked for many years in humanitarian missions in Kenya and Somalia, two countries plagued by decades of conflict. He is currently the Official Spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Coordinator for the Communications and Information Management Sector.

Saviano Abreu, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) during a press conference in Ukraine – Photo: personal archive

“It could be war, or conflict, or other disasters, like hurricanes, floods, droughts, that’s all part of our business as well,” he explained.

After two months in Ukraine, he returns to Nairobi, Kenya, where he lives. Or rather, he lived: “I will be transferred from Kenya to another location of the United Nations in Ukraine.”

One of the main points of his work is the negotiation of Access to humanitarian aid and the people who need it. His team does not conduct any negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, only to help the suffering population.

Saviano Abreu during humanitarian work in Mozambique – Photo: personal archive

“Wars also have laws. International humanitarian law regulates this issue and both parties are obligated to facilitate this access in a safe manner. Unfortunately, this has not happened,” Abreu explained.

“The situation in Mariupol is really desperate,” Abreu said. These are the people who have been without electricity for three months. They cannot open the tap and fetch water as there is no treated water. When the war began, the cold was unbearable and the people did not have gas to heat the place where they were.”

A separatist group publishes a video of the bombing of the Azovstal power plant

He knows that thousands of people are still there, but he does not know the exact number because the United Nations cannot reach everywhere.

Abreu said some people were afraid to leave the Azovstal plant: “In the first wave of pullouts, there were people who didn’t want to leave. They asked where they would be taken. There was a lot of speculation too.”

humanitarian negotiations

Although he was unable to reveal the details of the negotiations, Abreu explained that they take place at different hierarchical levels. One of the biggest developments in his view was when the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, spoke directly with the presidents of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

On the front, Saviano Abreu negotiated with the Ukrainian ministers and local authorities. He said that many decisions are being made at the time of the rescue: “We are talking about two countries at war, so not everything that is actually said will happen.”

Smoke over the Azovstal steel mills and the ruined gates of the Azov shipyard, in a clip taken on April 19 – Photo: Mariupol City Hall / via AFP Image

In one of the attempts to reach people at the Azovstal plant, he said that upon entering it became apparent that one of the entrances was a minefield:

“We got there, a colleague walked in, and he looked from side to side and said, ‘But this place is full of mines.’ He had to go back in the same step he did, back to our position. He had to stop everything, talk again, and call with the two governments and closes this agreement that he had to withdraw. All mines were cleared, we waited a whole day, and the next day we were able to go back.”

In the interview, Abreu said this issue as if it was just another setback in his day to day operations:It’s nothing unusual, it’s not far from the ordinary. We are ready and have the training to deal with these situations.”

He also spoke about the difficulty of getting around conflict zones and what it is like to pass through the checkpoints of the Russian army:

He explained that “the checkpoint is an area full of soldiers with tanks that do not allow the passage of anything, including us, the staff of the United Nations.” “They should call Russia and ask if they knew we were passing, if we had a pass.”

He compared treatment in Ukraine to other countries where he has worked with humanitarian aid: “I’ve worked in Somalia for a while, a country that has been in a state of civil war for decades, and there is a very well-established humanitarian response.”

Saviano Abreu takes a picture of two women in Sudan – Photo: Personal Archive

But this is not always the case. In Ethiopia, it was a nightmare. It was terrible. I couldn’t do anything because the country’s government did not authorize our passage.”

“I thought when I was 40 I would leave all this to live a normal life. But I’m about to get there and I don’t think I can stop now,” Abreu said.

The miner turned 39 on May 9, and was in Zaporizhia, Ukraine. His colleagues bought a cake, but they had to celebrate his birthday in a cellar. The sirens were sounding that day. “It became a routine on my birthdays. I guess I got used to it.”

He noted that he lived a “fairly normal” life in Ukraine, without having to stay inside bunkers all the time, which the warning system warns of the dangers of bombing. But perhaps he was used to dangerous situations: “You have to be prepared, I always have a backpack with food.”

Saviano Abreu wearing a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shirt in humanitarian work in Sudan – Photo: personal archive

Saviano Abreu began his career as a journalist in Brazil:

“I wanted to use the information to help people,” he said.

After that, he went to Spain for his master’s degree and ended up joining an NGO, where he worked for 9 years, until he passed the UN selection process and was assigned to Kenya.

“I count as little as possible”

The family lives in Brazil and he tries to tell them about it, but he tells them as little as possible so that they don’t worry too much.

“I try not to tell everything that happens in the places I’m in.” He explained that in his previous work in Africa it was easier not to tell what he was doing, but in Ukraine he had no way to hide it.

“The day I told them I was in Ukraine, I was there for about two months. I asked my mother: ‘Grand? What are you doing there?’Abreu said.

Saviano Abreu walks the road during humanitarian work in Sudan – Photo: personal archive

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