Samoa extends lockdown over Covid-19 outbreak. Killing of Rohingya by Myanmar army was genocide, declares United States. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe free after six years in Iranian prison. By Jonathan Pearlman.

AP reporter witnessed ‘so much death’ in Mariupol

An injured woman stands outside a bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol
Mariana Vishegirskaya outside the damaged maternity hospital in Mariupol earlier this month. Vishegirskaya later gave birth to a daughter.
Credit: AP Photo / Mstyslav Chernov

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: In the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol – which had 450,000 residents before the war, slightly more than Canberra – Russian bombs have hit more than 80 per cent of residential buildings and forced residents to take refuge in shelters for more than four weeks.

In a harrowing account of conditions in the city, two Associated Press reporters – the last journalists in Mariupol – this week described the devastation.

“I had witnessed deaths at the hospital, corpses in the streets, dozens of bodies shoved into a mass grave,” said Mstyslav Chernov, one of the reporters. “I had seen so much death that I was filming almost without taking it in.”

But the reporters, whose photographs of the attack on a maternity hospital provided some of the defining images of the war, are no longer in the city. They were extracted by Ukrainian soldiers who were concerned that the pair would be caught and forced by Russian soldiers to “say that everything you filmed is a lie”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week refused Russian demands to surrender Mariupol, where 100,000 people are still trapped.

On Tuesday, British officials said the Russian military was making little progress across Ukraine but was intensifying air and artillery attacks. A NATO official said the war was becoming a stalemate.

US President Joe Biden, who was due to meet European leaders on Thursday, said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning to use chemical or biological weapons. “We should be careful of what’s about to come,” he said.

Asked about the possible use of nuclear weapons, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told CNN on Tuesday that Russia would only use them if it faced an existential threat.

Ukraine this week urged China to play a more proactive role to end the war, as China’s refusal to condemn Russia and its criticism of the international sanctions deepened tensions between Beijing and the West.

India, whose main military supplier is Russia, has taken a similar “neutral” position to China. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week held an online summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and raised concerns about the invasion. Modi was unmoved. Delhi later said Morrison had “expressed understanding of India’s position”.

The neighbourhood

Samoa: The Pacific nation of Samoa was in lockdown this week after recording its first local case of Covid-19.

Since the detection of the case on March 17 – an American missionary who was tested because she planned to fly abroad – case numbers have spiralled. By Monday, 247 local cases had been recorded. Experts believe the virus may have been in the community for weeks.

On Monday, Fiamā Naomi Mata’afa, the prime minister, extended an initial four-day lockdown until April 5. The government has closed schools, barred public gatherings and suspended international travel.

Until recently, Pacific island nations remained some of the few countries that had successfully prevented a Covid-19 outbreak.   But several – including Kiribati, Tonga and Solomon Islands – have experienced their first outbreaks this year after struggling to combat the Omicron strain. Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Nauru remain free of Omicron.

As of Monday, Samoa had no Covid-19 patients in intensive care. About 65 per cent of Samoa’s 205,000 residents have had at least two vaccine doses.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: On Monday, the United States formally designated the attacks by Myanmar on the Rohingya minority as a genocide. The brutal military violence in 2017 caused 730,000 people to flee and led to an estimated 24,000 deaths.

During a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the military’s attacks were systematic and indicated a clear intent to wipe out the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group that has been barred from citizenship by authorities in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

“The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them,” he said.

The army’s attacks against the Rohingya occurred when Myanmar still had a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who denied that a genocide had occurred and defended the military. Last year, however, she was ousted and detained following a military coup. Since the coup, the military regime has launched a crackdown on demonstrations and has battled ethnic armed groups across the country. An estimated 1600 people have been killed.

Blinken, whose stepfather was a Holocaust survivor, said this week that the military’s brutal tactics witnessed during the Rohingya genocide had continued after the coup. “No one in Burma will be safe from atrocities so long as it is in power,” he said.

Spotlight: Iran cash-for-prisoner deal

In 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British–Iranian aid worker living in London, travelled to Iran to visit her parents with her then two-year-old daughter. As the pair were about to fly home, she was arrested at the airport in Tehran and accused of being a spy and plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who strenuously denied the charges, spent the next six years in detention. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, whom she met after moving from Iran to Britain to study in 2007, believed that she had been imprisoned over a £400 million debt owed by Britain to Iran that dated back to 1979. In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran had paid for arms from Britain, but he was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 after only a portion of the weapons were delivered. London refused to provide the remainder of the arms or hand back the funds.

Last week, Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is 44 years old, was suddenly released, along with Anoosheh Ashoori, a 67-year-old British–Iranian retired engineer who was detained on spying charges in 2017 while visiting his mother in Iran. A third detainee, Morad Tahbaz, a 66-year-old Iranian–American conservationist who also has British citizenship arrested in Iran in 2018, was also reportedly due to be released.

Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, confirmed that the government had settled its debt with Iran. She insisted the deal required that Iran use the money only for food and medical purposes.

On Monday, Zaghari-Ratcliffe told a packed press conference in London she believed the British government could have secured her release years ago. “We all know … how I came home,” she said. “I should not have been in prison for six years.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "AP reporter witnessed ‘so much death’ in Mariupol".

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