By Andriy Perun and Oleh Papushenko
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Sofia Telehina’s grandmother called her in tears more than a month ago from the besieged port city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine and asked if she was also hiding from bombs. That was the last time she heard from her grandparents.
The project manager is among those desperately trying to contact some of the 100,000 civilians that Ukrainian authorities believe are still trapped in dire conditions in Mariupol, which is now almost fully under Russian control.
“She said that everything was bombed to pieces. She was crying all the time,” Telehina told Reuters in the relative safety of the western city of Lviv.
“Since then I’ve not been able to reach her.”
Heavy bombardment knocked out Mariupol’s utilities soon after the start of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, so those desperate for news have no idea if the people they’re looking for are among the thousands feared killed or if they’re still sheltering in the ruins of the city, unable to make contact.
Russia denies targeting civilians and calls the invasion a “special military operation”.
Telehina asked volunteers to help find her grandparents at their home. Her grandmother, a 69-year-old music teacher at a kindergarten, and grandfather, a 70-year-old retired steel worker, live on the ninth floor of an apartment block.
“None of them could reach their home as the area around the building was being shelled,” she said, sharing a photo of herself tightly hugging her grandfather.
‘WE WANT HIM BACK ALIVE’
People have flooded social media sites with similar photos and pleas for information on missing loved ones.
The Telegram channel Mariupol Now is sharing information on evacuation efforts and on civilians still in the city, which was home to over 400,000 people before the war.
One recent post read: “Mariupol, Zelinskoho Street 13. Vika Morozova and her children, twin boys Sasha and Sergei. They were in a basement with the people who lived in the house. If someone has information, write or call me.”
Ukrainian human rights group Magnolia has received reports of around 2,000 missing children since the starts of the war, including in Mariupol. Previously the organisation registered around 300 such cases per year, one of its representatives Marina Lypovetska told Reuters.
Over 145,000 people have signed up to a group on Facebook called “The search for relatives and friends Mariupol 2022,” where members share contact details and photos of missing people.
One member shared a post tagged ‘Survivors, maybe you’ll recognise relatives’ with photos of people who looked like evacuees, clutching blankets and bags.
“Where are these people? The woman in a black hat with a kitten looks like my friend,” replied one user.
Others are searching for news about relatives defending the city, which Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday his forces had “liberated”, though a last contingent of Ukrainian troops were holding out at a steel factory.
Kristina Kravchuk’s uncle Mykola, a father of three, has been fighting with a Ukrainian brigade stationed in Mariupol, but there has been no word from him since March 25.
“My family and I are all looking for him,” she told Reuters by video call from her village near the southern city of Mykolaiv. “I’d like (him to know) that we are all waiting for him, and we want him back alive.”
(Additional reporting by Stefaniia Bern and Luiza Ilie; writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones)