Olga Ponomarenko, a resident of the besieged city of Mariupol, is pictured in this undated handout image supplied by her mother-in-law. Handout via REUTERS
Olga Ponomarenko, a resident of the besieged city of Mariupol, is pictured in this undated handout image supplied by her mother-in-law. Handout via REUTERS Reuters / HANDOUT

Victoria Zaburyna had urged her 76-year-old mother to flee the Russian forces that now besiege Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. She replied that the city was still calm and had stayed put.

Then her mother called to say that she was sheltering in a hallway after a bomb or shell had destroyed a nearby school, peppering her apartment block with debris.

"It's kind of quiet now, so I'll probably return home," said her mother, Tamara Usenko. "Don't worry." There has been no word from her since.

Hundreds of thousands of residents of Mariupol under bombardment have been sheltering without water or power for more than a week. Phone signals are also down, effectively cutting off the industrial city from the world.

Zaburyna has become one of thousands of Ukrainians desperately seeking information about loved ones who might have been cut off, displaced and possibly killed in the war.

Oleg Maksimchuk's older brother Viktor, who is 63 and retired, lives in a village just east of Mariupol. They haven't spoken since Feb. 26, when Viktor was sheltering in a basement.

"The bombing has started," Viktor told Oleg during that last telephone call. "I can see a military aircraft, too."

Oleg, who lives hundreds of miles away, tried to call Viktor the next day but couldn't get through. "I hope my brother is alive," he told Reuters.

Oleg has since posted a message on a Facebook page dedicated to reuniting Ukrainians with relatives in Mariupol. "Any information will be appreciated," he wrote, adding: "Glory to Ukraine."

A Telegram group has also been created to help find Ukrainians missing from Mariupol and other cities under intense bombardment. It has about 70,000 subscribers.


Russia has promised to open a humanitarian corridor to let Mariupol's besieged residents flee but the plan fell apart after Ukraine's government accused Russian forces of shelling it.

Ukrainian authorities said on Tuesday that a six-year-old girl had died alone from dehydration after Russian shells had destroyed her home and killed her mother.

Russia describes its actions in Ukraine as a "special operation" to disarm its neighbour. [

Until 1989, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Mariupol was named Zhdanov, after a high-ranking Communist who had led Leningrad - now St. Petersburg - during its gruelling siege by Germany in World War Two.

Now Mariupol endures its own siege.

Olha Uha hasn't heard from her 82-year-old uncle, Anatoliy Mulika, for eight or nine days. He lived alone in an apartment in eastern Mariupol.

Uha had urged her uncle to leave the city. She lives near Rivne, at the opposite corner of Ukraine.

But Mulika, who was born during World War Two, refused to budge. "He was optimistic and didn't want to hear about escaping," said Uha, recalling their last telephone conversation.

He said he had survived World War Two and the events of 2014, when Russia annexed nearby Crimea. "And I'll survive again," he told Uha. "I'll never give up."

Uha called the next day and couldn't get through. Now it was her turn to stay positive. "I don't want to think the worst," she said.

Iraida Dzyubenko was looking for her daughter-in-law, Olga Ponomarenko, who lived with two children in an apartment block on Mariupol's eastern edge.

Olga had tried to flee the city, but had decided to wait a day or two because the train station was crowded and her son was sick.

Eight or nine days ago, in the middle of the night, Dzyubenko got a last message from Olga, but while trying to open it she accidentally deleted it.

"I wish I could retrieve it but I can't," she said.

Dzyubenko, who also lived hundreds of miles from Mariupol, broke down several times while speaking about her relatives.

"Please help to find them," she sobbed.