In besieged Ukrainian cities, Internet access is vital. Following the attacks on television towers by the Russians, it was feared that the population would also be cut off from the world wide web. That’s not too bad for now: “If an invading nation wants to shut down Ukraine’s internet, they have to physically break into the data centers and take over the infrastructure,” said NetBlocks’ Alp Toker. The Guardian† “There is no central ‘dead man’s switch.’
Although there is no point where the Internet can be cut off, if the power goes out, all connections are broken. Cloudflare, a company that provided digital infrastructure in several Ukrainian cities, calculated the volume of Internet traffic after the raid. You can see the day and night rhythm of data traffic, the digital heartbeat of a city. This can be seen in the east of the country, in Mariupol, Izyum, Kharkov, and around kyiv in Butja and Irpin.
As a result, communication between family, friends and loved ones comes to a standstill. Especially from Mariupol, the population has not been able to make itself heard for days. Videos of a heavily destroyed city are circulating on the Internet. Evacuation attempts have been stopped. The electricity and water are cut off, neither the sewage system nor the heating works.
Calls with photos of missing persons appear on digital sites such as the ‘Kingdom of Ukraine’ Facebook group: more than sixty in 24 hours. „People, does anyone know where Anna and Ivan are? […] be? Please! Has anyone seen them? “HELP!!!!! Does anyone know the whereabouts of my relatives in Mariupol? They haven’t been contacted for ten days.” NRC spoke to three Ukrainians who have fled their cities.
ALLA SKORA (25)
‘I imagine the most horrible things’
One hour. That is the time that Alla Skora’s father walked to a place in the center of Mariupol where he sometimes has coverage. For a week, Skora, 25, did not hear from his family. On Wednesday he rang the phone and saw his father’s name on the screen: his parents were still alive. Skora began to cry.
Skora himself moved to Kharkov in eastern Ukraine in 2013, where there is heavy fighting. She fled west with her husband, eight friends and two dogs the day the war broke out. They are now staying in a hotel in the Ukrainian town of Smila.
Skora was born in the Mariupol maternity ward, which was destroyed by Russian bombs on Wednesday. “But I don’t stop there. All that matters now is if my family is safe.”
The conversation with his father lasted seven minutes. “I don’t know when I’ll hear from him again,” Skora says via Zoom. “What remains is my imagination. I imagine the most horrible things.”
He has been able to ask his father all the important questions: his parents have something to eat, the neighbors take good care of each other. Together they cook over a fire in the garden, where they melt ice to drink water. Meanwhile, the bombardment continues. “They just want…” Skora falls silent, searching for the right word: “Survival”.
TETIANA SMOTKIN (34)
‘We slept in the bathroom’
“When the air raid sirens went off, I had to go to the bomb shelter of our apartment and then I was out of breath. I am 26 weeks pregnant. There is hardly any fresh air there. After that I always felt terrible. After a few days, my husband and I stopped going. We slept in the bathroom, the safest place on the floor.”
Tetiana Smotkin headed an international Jewish student organization, Hellel, in kyiv. On the sixth day of the war, her husband took her from kyiv to Amsterdam in five days. “He is my hero.” Smotkin’s husband is Israeli and was therefore allowed to leave the country.
Smotkin was born in Vinnytsia, a city southwest of kyiv. His grandmother Emma, 89, refused to go and still lives in Vynnitsja. She “she As a child she fled to Russia when the Nazis invaded. Now that’s where the danger comes from.”
Smotkin helps Ukrainians from Amsterdam via Telegram. “Vynnitsha is not sleeping. People travel through my city during their evacuation and I help them find shelter. I have already helped fifty people find a temporary place to sleep.” She is also a volunteer for the Life Changer organization: “They deliver food to air-raid shelters across the country.” Also in Mariupol? “Except in Mariupol, no one can deliver there now.”
DARIA FEDOROVA (26)
“I hate Russia, I hate Putin”
Within ten minutes, Daria Fedorova was packing her suitcase. She closed the door of her apartment in kyiv behind her and ran to the station with her roommate. The air-raid siren resounded across the city. “I was afraid that a bomb would drop on us,” said Fedorova, 26. She sends a video that she made in the crowded kyiv station: screaming children, crying mothers with luggage on their heads.
An almost endless journey brought them to a host family in Lisbon. They are safe, he says via Zoom. “I can eat and drink without hearing bombs. The worst thing is that I don’t know how my family is.”
Fedorova grew up in Mariupol. Her mother is dead and her father is at sea. Ella’s brother Egor, 11 years old, lives with her grandparents in Mariupol. She hasn’t had any contact with them for ten days. Phone calls, text messages: nothing comes through. “Only when I know they are okay will I calm down,” Fedorova said. “I hate Russia, I hate Putin. I have no words for this.”
The last time Fedorova had contact with her brother, she tried to talk to him about the war, about how he feels, if he is afraid. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. I hear the bombs, but I’m not afraid. I am a strong man.’” Fedorova looks sad. This war is aging him.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 12, 2022.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 12, 2022.