Stuck in Mexico, Ukrainian man scours social media for missing dad in Mariupol

A Mayan dancer performs at the Xcaret Eco Theme Park on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo: Reuters

A Mayan dancer performs at the Xcaret Eco Theme Park on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo: Reuters

Published Mar 28, 2022


By Paola Chiomante, Dasha Afanasieva and Daina Beth Solomon

Playa del Carmen, Mexico – Instead of enjoying the turquoise seas and white sands at one of Mexico’s top beach resorts, Valerii Gorpenko mostly stays in his hotel, scouring social media for word of his elderly father, who is missing in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Stranded on vacation on Mexico's Caribbean coast when Russia invaded Ukraine, Gorpenko, 47, has now spent more than three weeks without hearing from the 72-year-old Vladimir Gorpenko.

He does know that bombs and shelling have destroyed much of Mariupol, once a city of 400 000 people, thousands of whom are trying to escape. Vladimir’s home was not spared; a photo circulating online shows the multi-storey building burned out.

This video grab from a handout footage taken and released by the the National Police of Ukraine, shows a damaged children’s hospital, destroyed cars and debris on ground following a Russian air strike in the south-eastern city of Mariupol. Picture: AFP

To find his father, Gorpenko posted a photo on Facebook showing a smiling man with thinning white hair. He is trying to get friends in Ukraine to rescue him.

“It's been impossible because Mariupol is under constant bombardment,“ Gorpenko said from the Mexican beach getaway of Playa del Carmen.

Reuters was unable to independently verify his account.

The hotel extended his stay at a tenth of the original price after he explained he could not go home, and has given him internet access to look for clues of his father.

“The first five days we were in touch ... I hope Dad is still alive and hiding in a bomb shelter.”


As Russia keeps up air strikes to take the strategic port city that could help it link areas held by pro-Russian separatists in Crimea, Ukraine says 100 000 people in Mariupolare are trapped – cut off from food, water, power and heat and blocked by fighting from being able to escape.

The Kremlin denies targeting civilians and says its forces are engaged in a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext to invade a democracy.

Russia and Ukraine have close historical ties, with family spread out across both nations.

Gorpenko's 21-year-old son, a Russian citizen, is finishing a university degree in Moscow, and Gorpenko fears he could be drafted into Russia’s army.

Dozens of Ukrainians have fled to Mexico in recent days with hopes of crossing into the US, and many have been allowed by US officials to enter the country and stay without fear of deportation for a year.

Gorpenko was already in Mexico when the Russian invasion began on February 24, having left Ukraine a week earlier for the beach vacation with seven friends. His companions, with children in Ukraine, went back to Europe.

With many friends still in Mariupol, Gorpenko knows he is not the only one trying to bring people to safety.

“Everyone is now searching, trying to somehow save their loved ones and get them out of this hell,” he said.

More than 4 000 people fled Mariupol on Saturday. Ukraine and Russia on Sunday agreed to a humanitarian corridor for private cars to leave the city.

Once he knows his father is safe, Gorpenko plans to go to the US.

“I can’t afford to go back to Europe,” he said. “Besides, there’s nothing left of my Mariupol and nothing to go back to in Ukraine.” – Reuters

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