Communication blackout: More pain for Mariupol

Destroyed trams at a depot in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 5, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AFP) - Viktor Zarubin was lucky to escape Mariupol six weeks ago, but with no mobile phone coverage in the devastated city, he faces another torment: no word on whether his relatives, who stayed behind, are alive.

"I tried calling them and messaging them on various apps. I also tried reaching them through volunteers", the 22-year-old student told AFP.

He didn't succeed.

"Perhaps their houses burned down? Perhaps they don't have a phone anymore?" Zarubin said, adding that he hopes they are alive.

Mariupol residents, interviewed by AFP said phone reception in the strategic port city destroyed by the Russian army was lost on March 2, about two weeks after Moscow invaded its neighbour.

Since then, residents have been left with few means of communication with each other and the outside world.

As the city suffered heavy bombardment, locals had to move from one bomb shelter to the next, looking for safer locations.

At one point Zarubin had to risk being hit by a bomb to cross the city and tell his loved ones that he had moved.

"I would go to my relatives' place and I would write down my new address on a piece of paper and leave it outside their door or with a neighbour. That was how I communicated," Zarubin recalled in a telephone interview with AFP from western Ukraine, where he now lives.

Signal could be caught only in a few spots around the city and even then it was "really bad", Zarubin said.

By some miracle, on March 14 Zarubin was able to telephone a friend, who tipped him off about an escape route out of the city through territory still controlled by Ukrainian soldiers.

The next day, Zarubin left with his parents and two friends. Luckily, his younger brother Andriy, whom the family hadn't been able to reach and inform about their departure, was able to flee the city on his own two days later.

'I want to see her again'

But one of Andriy's friends, whom Andriy referred to by the pseudonym Yevgen, chose to remain in Mariupol - in his family home, next to his parents. Every once in a while Yevgen managed to pick up a signal and send Andriy a message to say he is doing fine.

Twice Andriy was able to reach Yevgen through the messaging app Telegram thanks to Fenix, a local cell phone operator active on the territory of the breakaway region of Donetsk, which has been fighting Kyiv since 2014.

But Mariupol residents fear their calls might be intercepted by Moscow and also lament that Fenix does not allow direct calls to Ukraine and doesn't let the user trace incoming calls.

People walking near residential buildings that were destroyed amid the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 3, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Valeriy, a 60-year-old Mariupol resident who went on a business trip to Kyiv several days before the start of the war, says he spent 47 endless days hoping to hear the voice of his wife of 45 years.

"It was the hardest thing I've lived through," he said.

Valeriy, who is also using a pseudonym to protect his identity, said his wife has been taken to Russia.

"I have only one wish: for the war to end so that I can see her again," Valeriy said.

Andriy Zarubin fears the worst for his friend.

The last time he heard from Yevgen, the young man was queuing in front of what he called a filtration centre, facilities where, according to witness accounts, Russian or pro-Russian troops interrogate Ukrainian residents to identify those who remained loyal to Kyiv.

Even though Yevgen has no connection to Ukrainian troops, Andriy fears he might be taken for a saboteur or forcefully enlisted in the Russian army.

He has not heard from Yevgen since.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.