In Ukraine’s Mariupol, a website for the missing reveals the toll of Russia’s war

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A 76-year-old woman, last seen in her basement, is shown smiling in front of a bed of tulips. A missing teenager who may have fled with neighbors is pictured in a dress holding a bouquet. Then there is the elderly couple whose house burned down in the fighting. And a mother-son duo not heard from in a month.

These are just a few of the hundreds of notices users have posted over the past week to a new website aimed at tracking the missing residents of Mariupol, the southern Ukrainian port city Russian forces have besieged for much of the war.

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The site, Mariupol Life, was the brainchild of computer programmer and Mariupol native Dmitry Cherepanov, who was forced to flee the city in March after days of shelling cut off the electricity and water supply. Cherepanov, 45, wanted to use his skills to help people find information about their missing loved ones, he said this week via Telegram.

His growing database is easy to use: It includes names, addresses, birth dates and sometimes last-known locations of missing individuals. Users can follow a missing person’s profile for updates or send direct messages or comments to others who have posted. But it also has offered a window into the sheer scale of the human tragedy in Mariupol, where untold numbers of people have been killed or have disappeared.

According to Ukrainian officials, up to 20,000 civilians may have been killed in Mariupol since the start of the invasion — in a city where the prewar population numbered about 450,000. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory over Mariupol this week, despite the presence of a contingent of Ukrainian fighters holed up in a sprawling steelworks at the edge of the city.

Control over Mariupol would give Russia a crucial land bridge between Russian territory and the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

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The city was once a thriving seaside hub and center of iron and steel production. Now it is not clear how many residents have fled or gone missing. In the week since Cherepanov launched Mariupol Life, it has logged more than 12,000 visits and now has more than 1,000 entries for missing people. There are an additional 1,000 posts for those who were evacuated, including some residents who were forced to leave for Russia.

In one post, 62-year-old Marchuk Alexander Yosipovich is shown wearing some type of military uniform. His photograph is accompanied by a brief, painful note:

“I’m looking for my father. Needs humanitarian aid. Food, water.”

Another includes an image of a bespectacled woman sitting on a bench. She is 70 years old and has been missing since March 21.

“I’m looking for mom,” the post says. “She was wearing a light jacket, white hat, moving poorly after a stroke.”

Cherepanov has posted his own entries, including one for a friend who went missing when he left home to fetch water. For him, the mounting losses have become deeply personal. Just hours after he posted this week, Cherepanov received information that his friend had been killed.

“I lost everything that I loved, everything that was dear to me in Mariupol, where I was born and lived for 45 years of my life,” he said.

Cherepanov’s house, the block he lived on, the grand, red-roofed theater where hundreds took shelter and the retro computer museum he built were all destroyed, he said.

But even amid the darkness, Mariupol Life has provided some light.

On a post seeking information about a family who disappeared after their house caught fire, a new comment appeared.

“Get in touch,” the commenter said. “Everyone is alive.”