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First seen as safe havens, cities in eastern Ukraine have become mousetraps

EL PAÍS journalist Margaryta Yakovenko has relatives in a town that is being besieged by Russian troops. Their daily phone calls reflect the struggle for survival without water, electricity or medicines

Rusia Ucrania
People take shelter inside a building in Mariupol, Ukraine.Evgeniy Maloletka (AP)
Margaryta Yakovenko

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My family has had no electricity, no heating and no internet connection for three days now because Russian soldiers have destroyed all the infrastructure of the city in eastern Ukraine where they tried to take refuge from the war. It is very hard to find cellphone reception. My aunt allows herself one call a day, in the morning, when she provides us with a veritable war report: “They’ve been shooting at night. We’ve been hiding in the hallway where there are no windows. We are all right.” The rest of the time, she turns off the phone to preserve the battery. If it dies, we don’t know when they’ll be able to charge it again.

The war report on Tuesday was especially tough. After three days, the city’s water deposits are emptying out, and because there is no electricity they cannot be refilled. Local residents are starting to panic after enduring gunshots and seeing Russian tanks on their streets for three days. Besides, misfortunes never come singly, so as if the war wasn’t enough, my uncle, aunt and cousin have also been dealing with fever, headaches and sore throats. If they were here, I’d tell them to get a pharmacy test because it might be Covid-19. But it doesn’t make any sense to tell them that: in their town, pharmacies are closed because all products were sold out days ago, even over-the-counter pain relievers.

The possibility of fleeing has gone out like a weak flame on a candle. The city is surrounded and soldiers are advancing in deadly, unstoppable columns that stretch for miles; nobody dares jump in a car and try to escape. Having no electricity and no internet makes the situation even tenser, because the only thing you are aware of is the tanks rolling down the streets, the bursts of gunshots, the night bombings and the air raid sirens – if there are any. You don’t know whether Ukraine is still putting up resistance or whether it has fallen already. You don’t know whether the next town over is safer than yours, or whether it lies in ruins.

On day six of the war, all certainties are beginning to fade. Yet one thing seems increasingly clear: the small cities and villages did not turn out to be safe havens as many initially thought, but mousetraps instead. It is impossible to stay safe in a country that is immersed in a complete war. If my aunt has taken on the role of conveying daily information from the frontline, my uncle has decided – and I’m not sure whether he’s being brave or has simply lost all hope – to go out once a day to get water or to check on my grandmother, who is staying in an apartment at the other end of town.

After fleeing the city of Mariupol on day one of the invasion with a couple of large water bottles, the entire contents of their fridge and a bag with underwear, they managed to get hold of 20 liters of gasoline. That same day, gas stations ran out of fuel and it is currently impossible to fill the tank.

Without electricity, daily household appliances become absolutely useless. You can’t take a shower, make coffee or grab a yogurt from the refrigerator. My relatives have started to salt their meat so it won’t spoil. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write in the year 2022. I never thought I would one day be writing about the fact that my family members are going hungry and cold in Europe as they hide from Russian missiles in hallways, basements and bathtubs.

On the sixth day after the start of the war, any news about my family is anticipated and valued as though it were the most expensive jewel on the planet. It’s never positive news, but if it arrives, it means that they’re alive.

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