A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 2, 2022

The Last Cell Tower In Mariupol, Ukraine

It was amazing that it lasted as long as it did, thanks largely to the efforts of a few engineers who worked under fire to keep it going. JL 

Matt Burgess reports in Wired:

For weeks, Russian troops have held Mariupol under siege—cutting off crucial food, water, and power supplies. Entire neighborhoods have been flattened by Russian shelling. Mariupol’s death toll stands at 5,000, and 90% of buildings have been damaged. Since the Russians had knocked out the electricity grid, Kyivstar workers kept the last base station in Mariupol online manually, using a generator. Then the office was attacked. The closure of the base station leaves the city disconnected, from itself and everyone else. The engineers maintaining the core station survived and were living out of the office, as of March 25.

IF YOU WALKED down Budivel'nykiv Avenue in central Mariupol in mid-February, you may not have even noticed it. Rising between a Greek cultural center to the left and a nightclub with a bowling alley to the right, the seven-story office of Kyivstar, a mobile and internet service provider, stood clad in gray siding, punctuated by a large white and orange Kyivstar logo above the entrance—a typical corporate facade. You certainly wouldn’t have pinpointed it as one of the most important buildings in southeast Ukraine.

Walking inside and through the office, you would have eventually found the “core” station—the central hive of mobile telecommunications connected to 148 base stations. The stations, in turn, transmitted the wireless signals that residents of Mariupol and beyond used to call loved ones, text friends, and get online every day. But that was then, in another world.

“One by one all these base stations went down,” says Volodymyr Lutchenko, Kyivstar’s chief technology officer, speaking on a video call from relative safety in western Ukraine. “First of all, because of the power connection, then because of the physical damage.”

For weeks, Russian troops have held Mariupol under siege—cutting off crucial food, water, and power supplies. Entire neighborhoods have been flattened by Russian shelling and missiles, fires burn through flats, bodies of civilians are scattered through the streets. City officials say Mariupol’s death toll stands at 5,000, and 90 percent of buildings have been damaged, although this has not been independently verified. While hundreds of thousands have escaped, officials estimate that 170,000 people are still trapped in the city, with few ways to tell their loved ones they are still alive.

Since the start of Russia's unprovoked war against Ukraine in late February, the country's communications systems have been frequent targets of Russian attacks. Vladimir Putin’s troops have bombed television towers and hit internet providers with disruptive cyberattacks. The assaults cripple people’s ability to communicate with loved ones and find safe locations, but they also stop real-time reporting of the atrocities happening on the ground. “We have a number of cities that are currently without telecommunications,” SSSCIP, Ukraine’s cybersecurity agency, said on March 29.

Maripuol is one of them. Information can’t get into Mariupol, but it also can’t get out. “We managed to keep the central site safe until the recent time,” Lutchenko says. Early on in the war, Ukraine’s telecom providers combined their networks—across the country, 250,000 people from rival networks remain connected to Kyivstar’s systems, the CTO says. But that, too, has been disrupted. LifeCell, another telecoms provider, says its services in Mariupol have been disconnected since February 27. By early March, only the central base station in the Budivel'nykiv Avenue office was online.

Since the Russians had knocked out the electricity grid, Kyivstar workers kept the last base station in Mariupol online manually, using a generator. Even with service restored, the connection was weak, Lutchenko says, and people would gravitate toward the Kyivstar building, where the signal was strongest, to get online and message loved ones.

Then the office was attacked.

EVERY DAY UNTIL he escaped on March 15, Nick Osychenko would climb to the 10th floor of his city apartment in the center of Mariupol, turn on his phone, and hunt down a mobile connection. He’d then open his camera and record videos for his Facebook page—a sign to his friends that he and his family were still alive, despite the unfolding devastation around them. “You can see how my face changed, day by day,” he says. During those precious minutes online, Osychenko also turned to Telegram and news websites, so he could report the latest developments to others in his building whose devices were out of power.

Osychenko is the CEO of Mariupolskoe TV, a Mariupol television station that broadcasts live morning shows and had its 25th anniversary this month. Before the war, he was planning a party to celebrate the anniversary. Instead, the TV station’s broadcasts, from studios near the Sea of Azov, stopped a few days after Russia’s war began on February 24. The TV channel ran on an emergency generator for around 20 hours after the city’s electricity was cut, Osychenko says. But they were broadcasting to no one.

“All of the city had no electricity, so nobody could watch TV,” Osychenko says. “The city has no information at all. People have no internet. People have no television. And people even don't have any mobile net,” he adds. “They don't know what is going on in this country, or in the world. They don’t know nothing. ​They only know that they want to live and their children want to live.”

Osychenko says he had big plans to expand the station this year—new shows, and he wanted to create a new studio. Everything is now on pause, and the team has pivoted to posting on its social media channels. Mariupolskoe TV’s studios have been destroyed, according to Osychenko. “Everything is burned,” he says. The station’s studios are—were—near a park in Mariupol, far from any military targets, Osychenko says. For now, Osychenko is worried about two things: making sure the world knows the horrors of Mariupol, and the safety of his employees. “I have 89 people in my channel,” he says. “I only know that 41 of these people with me are still alive.”

Across Mariupol, the loss of communications means a shroud conceals what’s happening on the ground. People outside the city don’t know if their loved ones inside are alive; those still inside don’t know if it’s safe to try to escape the shelling. “At first I couldn’t understand why Mariupol fell apart so quickly,” one member of a team of Associated Press journalists, who were the last international journalists in the city, wrote once they had safely escaped. “Now I know it was because of the lack of communication.” Another person who escaped Mariupol, who does not want to be named for safety reasons, tells WIRED: “The only way we could know what was happening in the world was by using wireless radio.”

The lack of access to information has placed Mariupol at the center of a swirl of disinformation. After Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital, about 20 minutes on foot from the Kyivstar offices, the Russian government used images of Ukrainian beauty blogger Marianna Podgurskaya to claim the attack was staged. The false claims have been thoroughly debunked.

Beyond Mariupol, Ukraine’s decentralized cable internet has held up relatively well to Russia’s attacks—many people are still able to access the internet without issue. But in cities where power has been lost and infrastructure targeted with bombings, little can be done. On February 26, Mariupol internet service provider Trinity posted a photo to Facebook of its engineers using generators to power the company’s systems. Engineers from telecom firms, as reported by Forbes, have tried to fix what equipment they can and keep systems online. The battle to do so in Mariupol has proved impossible.

“I was stuck for six or seven days without any news or any provable information,” says Alisa Liddell, a recruiter with tech company Beetroot, who lived in Mariupol. Liddell left Mariupol at the start of the war—her friends and colleagues are still in the city—and moved about 20 miles down the coast. Even outside Mariupol, there was no connectivity. “We were one of the first who lost the power and couldn't power up our community,” Liddell says.

From the beach in the village of Bilosarais'ka Kosa, Liddell and her father could see and hear Russian warships attacking her home. When a small group of villagers decided to take a generator to a mobile tower and brute-force it back online in early March, Liddell says, she was able to get back online for around two hours. She immediately grasped at the chance to call her sister in Prague and work colleagues. The next day, while walking on the beach, the generator powered up again, and her sister told her a humanitarian corridor allowing people out of the region would open that day. Russian troops have reportedly shelled these corridors. But still, it was a way out.

“It was 20 minutes to prepare, gather up our things—documents, some basic clothing—and just go,” Liddell says. The whole time, she says, she didn’t know if the journey was going to be safe, as they were “blind” to information. She traveled with her father across the country before separating from him and catching a train to the border with Poland, her poodle, JoJo, by her side. Liddell has since traveled to Prague to live with her sister. On her birthday, Liddell saw pictures of her Mariupol apartment completely destroyed.

Despite making it out of Mariupol and her family being safe, Liddell does not know if many of those close to her are OK. “I have lots of friends who are still not in touch with me,” she says. “I'm very, very scared to even think about the worst.” The only clue Liddell has, she says, is when she sees them appear online for a few brief seconds. “I saw that they are online. I'm like, ‘Yes, they are alive.’”

Those who left Mariupol later than Liddell were subjected to one of the war’s most brutal scenes. By the time Osychenko escaped on March 15, the city was destroyed. Driving out of the city, with his 12-year-old son in the car, he was “shocked” by the devastation. During the journey, he told his son not to look. “I told to my child, he must look at the sun,” Osychenko says. “All around our car and other cars on the streets were lying dead bodies. Dead bodies of children. Dead bodies of women. Dead bodies of men.”

THE TREE-LINED STREETS around the Kyivstar offices on Budivel'nykiv Avenue are now unrecognizable. Rubble and debris litter everything, buildings are burnt out, cars sit in the middle of the road, seemingly abandoned mid-drive. In a graphic video posted to Telegram on March 24, which was recorded outside the Kyivstar office and verified by open source analysts at the nonprofit Centre for Information Resilience, a body lies in the road.

For two weeks around the start of March, two of Kyivstar’s engineers would go to the offices every morning and start a diesel generator they connected to the telecom’s equipment, Lutchenko says. Once powered up, some communications would be restored to the city. The connection might have been spotty, but it allowed people a few minutes to connect with loved ones, news of the war, and the world beyond. At night, to help save dwindling gas supplies, they turned off the generator.

Since then, Lutchenko says, the Kyivstar office has been shelled multiple times, with the base station’s connection finally going off for good in the middle of March. The building, as seen in verified social media footage, has holes in its side, apparently caused by Russian shells. All of its lower windows are blown out. Inside, according to photos Kyivstar shared with WIRED, is a scene of devastation. Plasterboard and debris lay strewn throughout the building. Ceiling tiles and air-conditioning units have collapsed. Walls have been ripped away from the building's structure. One photo shows a hole in the floor where a shell appears to have smashed through the ground.

The closure of the Kyivstar base station leaves the city disconnected, from itself and everyone else. “Zero,” Lutchenko says of Mariupol’s mobile service. “There is no connectivity at all.”

Lutchenko doesn’t know what happened to the engineers who kept the service live for thousands of people. “Unfortunately, one day the Russian troops came, entered into the building, and they locked the guys into the basement and ceased all connections,” Lutchenko says. “Since that time, we don’t have any information, or where are they.”

Update Thursday, March 31, 2022: After speaking with WIRED, Lutchenko received word that the engineers maintaining the core station at Kyivstar’s Budivel'nykiv Avenue office survived and were living out of the office, as of March 25, according to Forbes.


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