Mariupol has been under heavy Russian bombardment for nearly two months, leaving residents trapped with little food, clean water or medical care. There is also no electricity or functioning cellphone service, making communication all but impossible for loved ones who remain.
“I hope and I know that my mom will be all right,” said Ilya, 20, a customer service representative who fled Mariupol several weeks ago without his mother, who decided to stay. “She will be OK. She will leave that city.”
“Right now I’m just thinking of what she would be doing if she was in my place. And I think that she will never give up. So I’m not giving up,” said Ilya, who spoke to NBC News via Zoom on Sunday from west Ukraine.
He spoke on the condition that his last name and his location not be used out of fear of being targeted by Russian forces.
Moscow has demanded the surrender of Mariupol’s few remaining Ukrainian defenders, a move Kyiv has flatly rejected. Ukrainian officials said they hoped to evacuate as many as 6,000 thousand civilians on Wednesday as Russian forces close in on the last pockets of resistance.
“We will celebrate our victory when this all ends. And we will win, I know that,” said Ilya.
Like many other Ukrainians, he is scouring social media groups like “Mariupol Search for Relatives and Loved Ones,” where a stream of photos on Facebook shows missing people posted by worried relatives. Many posts include details of where their loved ones live and were last seen in the hope somebody has information.
Some posts are updated with reassuring messages of survival; others call off the search with news that the person has died, adding to a toll that local officials say now stretches into the tens of thousands.
Nick Osychenko, 41, said he fled Mariupol with his family on March 15.
“We drove out of the city. And the worst thing I remember is dead bodies around us. So you are driving around dead bodies, dead children,” he said, speaking over Zoom from Zaporizhzhia, about three hours’ drive north of Mariupol.
Osychenko, who is a CEO of a television station, said he’s now looking for missing staff members.
“Some of them escaped,” he said, though there were about 29 people for whom he had no information.
“I’m trying to find them everywhere.”