Makeshift WiFi spot restores destroyed city in Ukraine

The residents of recently liberated Izyum, starved of news and contact with the outside world during the six-month occupation by Russian troops, are thankful for a makeshift Wi-Fi spot in the devastated Ukrainian city.

Outside a block of flats, dozens of people stand in front of a sign that reads “15 minutes of WiFi,” where an employee picks up each phone and punches in the password.

Izyum, a predominantly Russian-speaking town of about 50,000 before the war, had been completely occupied since April until it was recaptured earlier this month during Kyiv’s lightning-fast counteroffensive.

Shortly after the liberation, investigative teams found what they said were 447 bodies buried during the occupation.

Local residents told AFP on Thursday that power and cellphone infrastructure networks were badly damaged during the fighting and still haven’t been restored because a lack of information has kept them in the dark about what happened.

But thanks to an army-provided power generator, they can now reconnect to the internet — at least for a brief window each day.

“From 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., about three to four thousand a day can connect,” Seraphim, a soldier, told AFP.

“If too many people are connected at the same time, the internet breaks down, hence the 15-minute limit,” explains resident Olga German.

“After zero minutes a day, 15 is quite a lot. Now we can catch the news online, compare sources and keep in touch with our families,” said the 34-year-old English teacher.

The eight-story block is one of the few buildings in the devastated city that escaped relatively unscathed, though many windows are broken and the sound of sawing and hammering echoes from many floors.

A television screen on a stand next to the queue showed a Ukrainian channel broadcasting news about the war, while people huddled on the floor charged their phones using extension cords connected to the generator.

Residents ate borscht and beetroot soup cooked over a nearby campfire while children chop firewood.

Around the corner on a billboard was a half-torn poster: “Russia Forever,” it said.

– information vacuum –

German said the six-month occupation felt like “purgatory.”

“We lived in an information vacuum, we couldn’t contact our relatives, and we felt that the information we received from the Russians was not objective.

“So we lived on gossip and the stories got twisted”.

Nadezda Oleksandrivna, a 64-year-old dog trainer who waits for her turn in the queue, said that it feels like being out of news and out of touch with friends, “like having a bag on the Head”.

It could have serious mental health implications, she added.

Oleksandrivna said she stayed in Izyum during the occupation because she didn’t want to leave her two dogs behind.

Before the war, she was an avid internet user, keeping in touch with relatives, bloggers, politics and international news.

Now, she said, she bypasses the 15-minute WiFi limit by returning to the end of the line when her time is up.

For a group of teenagers scrolling around the corner with their phones, the Wi-Fi spot is an opportunity to meet up with friends on Viber and Telegram.

“Everyone started texting me, including my friends in Germany and the Czech Republic, they were really worried about me,” said 16-year-old resident Anton.

“When I first reconnected, I didn’t know what to do, I noticed that my TikTok had really changed.

“Now it’s all about the war,” he said.