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Russia's war on Ukraine has left more than 100 merchant vessels stranded


Russia's war on Ukraine involves operations at sea. Russia has ordered some waterways closed, and they have the guns to back it up. So more than 100 ships are stranded at Ukrainian ports and in the waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Crews on board are not able to get off their vessels and are sometimes under fire. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, off the coast of Ukraine, are busy waterways for container ships and oil tankers. When the invasion of Ukraine unfolded, dozens of ships and about 800 seafarers were suddenly caught in a war zone.

OLEG GRYGORIUK: There are some aircraft attacks. Most of the area is mined right now. So it's not safe. It's really not safe.

NORTHAM: Oleg Grygoriuk is the head of Ukraine's Marine Transport Workers Trade Union. Speaking from Ukraine, he says several vessels have come under missile fire.

GRYGORIUK: We just had one case at the very beginning with the Russian crew who was hit by the Russian missile, and they appeared in the Ukrainian hospital.

NORTHAM: Russian warships traverse the shipping lanes, threatening attacks on Ukraine from the sea and hampering shipments of wheat and corn. Stephen Cassel (ph) is general secretary of the International Transport Workers Federation.

STEPHEN COTTON: At the moment, the advice is just sit tight. So every ship that's there, whether you're Panamanian, Russian, Ukrainian, whatever you are, is basically stuck in port or off the port at anchorage.

NORTHAM: Many of the seafarers have already been on board for months. A large number come from the Philippines, but there are also Ukrainians and Russians on the same ships and, so far, mostly getting along, says Grygoriuk.

GRYGORIUK: But it feels to me that longer the war continues, there might be more grounds for the fights on board or some conflicts on board.

NORTHAM: Some companies have been able to get workers off the ships and back home. It's tougher for the Ukrainian seafarers. There are challenges getting their pay because of the conflict. Also, home is now a war zone. Still, Grygoriuk says some of the stranded Ukrainian seafarers want to go find out what's happening to their families. Others want to defend their country.

GRYGORIUK: There are some case by case - inspired people with the experience - let's say special experience, military experience. They are willing to come back and to fight.

NORTHAM: Cassel says there's also concern about what to do with the Russian seafarers.

COTTON: The ship owners are as worried about Russian seafarers in the logistics of moving them around because of the sanctions. Anecdotally, we've got evidence that Russians are not really welcome at certain ports.

NORTHAM: Meanwhile, provisions are running low on the stranded ships around the Black Sea. The International Maritime Organization held an emergency meeting last week to discuss creating safe passage, says Jason Zuidema with the North American Maritime Industry Association (ph).

JASON ZUIDEMA: There's a concerted effort by the international community to create corridors, much like the refugees have been asking for corridors to get out of their besieged cities - similar sort of maritime corridors for those ships to be able to leave the war zone.

NORTHAM: Zuidema says normally, his group and others would have chaplains and volunteers to bring supplies or arrange family visits for the seafarers. But Zuidema says most of those volunteers in Ukraine are no longer at the ports. They're now refugees in the war with Russia. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.