The Last Cell Tower in Mariupol

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.