The last time Lala Amiraslanova saw her family in Ukraine was on February 23, the day before the Russian invasion.
Lala, her mother and her younger brother returned to Baku, Azerbaijan that day. Her father and older brother remained in Mariupol, a city of roughly half a million people in southeast Ukraine.
For days after the war started, Lala could not reach her brother or father.
“The situation is really bad there…They can only receive calls in one part of the city,” she said, adding that her brother Kamil Amiraslanov, 30, said they have been staying at a shelter and are running out of food.
“He says when he goes out, he faces a horrific scene: there are corpses on the street, blood and everywhere there are ruins. Our two cars were destroyed, and they do not know if our house is still standing.”
Mariupol has been under siege since March 3 and Russian forces have been bombing the city for several days. Attempts to evacuate residents have been largely unsuccessful, until yesterday when more than 160 private cars finally left the city.
It was the first successful evacuation since the city was encircled by Russian troops, according to the local authorities.
Human Rights Watch recently reported that civilians in the city have been trapped in a “parched and freezing cold nightmare” without electricity and “living under constant threat of Russian bombardments.”
“My brother goes out and finds food, but it is hard.. Children are starving,” Lala said.
Sabir Safarov, 31, is in Baku and looking for his sister and her family, who live in Mariupol. The last time he heard from them was March 2, when they told him they were heading to a shelter and may be out of contact. Over the past several days, Sabir has tried to reach his sister’s in-laws but to no avail.
Sabir said he and his relatives have tried to get help from the foreign ministry and other state bodies but the only response was that the ministry does not have any information because “there is a shelling in the city, people don’t go out and they are in the shelters.”
“I asked about what happened with the corridor, they said they are waiting for it and only the Russian and Ukrainian sides can confirm it,” he said. “When I asked about the number of Azerbaijanis in Mariupol, they didn’t say anything or make a list.”
No one knows how many Azerbaijani citizens live in the city and there is little information from the Azerbaijani government on efforts to help them. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that over 7,500 Azerbaijani citizens have been evacuated from the country and a delegation was sent to meet Azerbaijani citizens who fled to Moldova.
Human rights lawyer Emin Abbasov argues that the Azerbaijani government has an obligation to protect the rights and interests of Azerbaijani citizens living abroad.
“It should be noted that Azerbaijan has numerous bilateral agreements and diplomatic relations with both parties to the conflict. Azerbaijan is also a party to a number of multilateral agreements with the parties to the conflict,” Abbasov said, noting that the agreements give Azerbaijan the right to demand that the parties to the conflict evacuate its civilians.
A foreign ministry spokesperson told Chai Khana, however, that she did not have any information about evacuations from Mariupol.
Left to their own devices, Azerbaijanis with loved ones in Mariupol have created a Whatsapp group, Mariupol-Odessa and are posting information about their missing relatives and seeking advice.
“Please when someone talks to his relatives, ask them to make a list of Azerbaijanis next to him/her. Or if that person sees another one on the food line or on the street. So pass this information to each other here,” one message reads.
Mirkhalid Akhmadov, 23, lives in Baku and has used the Whatsapp group to look for his uncle and cousins. He last spoke to them on March 1, when they were hiding in a basement from the bombs.
He is also helping others find their families by posting their information on the Whatsapp group.
Mirkhalid said his uncle and relatives have been living in Mariupol for 20 years. “We didn’t think it would come to this,” he said. “Now no one can reach anyone in Mariupol, no one can learn anything.”