Messages from the family of a noted London shipping lawyer have revealed the horror of Russia’s attack on the civilian population of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by bombs and missiles.

WhatsApp messages sent to Mike Lax from his nephew Ilya since the invasion reveal the terror of life for people defenceless under bombardment by Russian forces.

On Monday evening last week, Ilya wrote: “… we have sirens. I hear cannons really close. Need to go. Later he added: “All town without electricity…”

Since Tuesday night last week, Lax has heard nothing. “No news whether they are alive or dead,” he said. “But as each day goes by, with people being bombarded every day and night, no light, no food, no heating, freezing weather and reports of people dying even from dehydration, we fear the worst.”

Attempts to set up a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians out of Mariupol were repeatedly disrupted by Russian forces over the weekend, prompting investigations into potential war crimes.

Lax’s wife Vera comes from Mariupol and her mother, Galyna, still lives there in one apartment with her two grandsons, Ilya and Zhenya.

“When the invasion started, I started to exchange some WhatsApp messages with Ilya,” Lax told TradeWinds. “They contain a short story that has been repeated in thousands of homes throughout Ukraine.

“People need to understand that Western platitudes about standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine, while in fact sitting comfortably in living rooms hundreds or thousands of miles away, are not enough. Even sanctions are not enough.”

Russia knowledge

Lax has long experience dealing with Russians in law, having set up his own firm Lax & Co in 2007, partly so he could commit to defending private Russian shipowner Yuri Nikitin in the mammoth High Court fraud trial in London involving Russian state shipping company Sovcomflot.

He now works as a dispute resolution and litigation consultant for Rosling King after the two firms merged last year.

Lax said Ilya’s messages were initially optimistic after the 24 February invasion, referring to the Ukrainian soldiers as “terminators” after they had beaten off several attacks.

By Saturday 26 February, Ilya said that although they still had food and water, “explosions are more often. Russian army is getting close to Mariupol…”

The following Monday, he wrote that the Russians were bombing Mariupol again. He had read about the possibility of a negotiation with Russia. “I hope they come to an agreement.”

Later that afternoon, he messaged: “I’m in panic here. Russians are near Mariupol. I can see the echo of cannons we are about to go to the shelter.”

In the evening, Ilya said: “We are all believe in hope right now … it’s been quiet a few hours but it’s still very fierce fighting on the Mariupol borders … We just praying and believing in our soldiers.”

He added (having heard about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats): “I hope Putin is not going to use nuclear bombs against USA and UK … I read news about it … that’s totally insane move from dictator.”

Later that day electricity was cut.

Summer holidays

Since Ilya and Zhenya were small, they spent every summer with Lax and his wife. “I saw them growing up. By January 2022, I believed that Putin was hell-bent on invasion and I urged them all to leave Mariupol and stay in our house in Turkey.”

Like probably the vast majority of Ukrainians and many Western politicians, Galyna refused to believe that this would happen and said she would not leave, Lax recalls.

“Ilya and Zhenya did not feel that they could leave their grandmother and also stayed. They are now old enough to be called up to the Ukrainian army and would not be permitted to leave Ukraine anyway, but they wanted to stay and support their grandmother for as long as possible.”

On Tuesday morning, 1 March, Ilya messaged: “We have electricity now. It was very hard for me to be alone and without news. Russians aimed the center of Mariupol with rocket. I’m so tired of this shit. I wish we could be in Turkey right now … I hope it will stop soon. Russians are keep pushing Mariupol…”

He then sent photos of a building occupied by a friend that had had its windows blown out.

Fear under attack

Later that day, he expressed his growing fear: “I hope we can survive and go through this alive. I’m scared for Jenya and Galyna. I’m scared that is not the way out from Mariupol tight [sic] now.”

Then, on Tuesday night: “We gonna try to sleep tonight. I’m not sleeping well all this days. Always listening what is going outside in case to wake everyone and run … Good night.”

Nothing has been heard since.

Lax added: “If history has taught us anything, it’s that if we succumb to threats when our lives and values are threatened, we end up having to confront those risks in due course anyway but at a time when the consequences are even greater.

“Better to confront them now while we have the brave Ukrainians in the front line.”