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Shelling Over the Big Water

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After the destruction of the Kakhovka dam by the Russian occupying forces on June 6th this year, Kherson became the centre of a major rescue operation. The locals not only try to evacuate the residents of Kherson itself, whose houses have been affected by the flood, but also attempt to bring help to the residents of the Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnipro river.

Most of the city’s territory is located sufficiently high to remain untouched by the flood. In those parts of the city life resembles its wartime “normal” – as normal as it can be for a city living under constant shelling since last autumn. The locals can get to and out of the city by bus, there are food stores and even some cafes open. The water level in the city reached its highest point some time on June 9th and began to decrease gradually from June 10th. But it will probably be weeks before the residents of the flooded neighbourhoods can return to their homes, or the places where their homes used to be.

This is the case for Ulyana. Since her house has been flooded, Ulyana has been living in her bakery in the city centre. The bakery was closed during the occupation and Ulyana only re-opened it some months before the flood. Together with Anzhela, her neighbour, they manage a small volunteer resource centre, distributing donations supplied by NGOs and charities from all over Ukraine.

Anzhela became involved in volunteering in January this year, when life in her area became harsh due to continuous Russian shelling. The locals did not have electricity or gas and the economic situation in the city was dire, so the help coming from outside was highly appreciated. Anzhela, a former teacher, started looking for possible sources of help that could distribute donations among the locals in the neighbourhood. Now with the flood, she says, the network of contacts she had developed from January became even more valuable.

The supplies Anzhela and Ulyana are distributing come mostly from charities which knew about them before the flood and contacted them directly. They say people from places all over Ukraine just load up their delivery vans and come to Kherson with supplies. When I drop in to the bakery during my rounds in the city, I meet Svitlana, who chairs the NGO “Virni Nazavzhdy” (Faithful Forever) in Pyriatyn in Poltava region. She had just arrived with a van loaded with food and other necessary supplies. “We mostly support the army units but this is an emergency we couldn’t ignore,” she says. Having unloaded the van partially in the bakery, Svitlana and her colleagues head to the flooded villages on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the Dnipro river to distribute the rest.

The owners of the building the bakery is located in let Ulyana and Anzhela use the vacated rooms as an area to store and distribute supplies. They distribute bottled drinking water, durable food supplies, clothing and water purifying tablets. For the next few weeks, they feel that they will need medicines, small gas bottles, portable gas cookers, generators and water pumps.

Some hundred metres away from Ulyana’s bakery, near the edge of the water covering the streets closer to the river, the action is more dramatic. In one of the streets, evacuation boats let off a man whose family is trapped in flooded Oleshky, on the occupied left bank of the Dnipro. He is talking to them on the phone and trying to persuade them to make an escape attempt. His colleague says the light dinghy boat will be carried by the water stream closer to the place on the river, where another boat would be able to intercept it and bring it to the Ukrainian side. The people on the other side think the plan is too risky and decide to stay in the flooded town. Their relative is trying to arrange for some medicine to be dropped to them via drone. The regional authorities in Kherson say that only 123 people managed to escape from the left bank of the Dnipro so far, over the big water.

A group of volunteers rescuing animals from the flooded Kherson neighborhoods has been waiting for their colleagues to come back from their mission. The motor of their boat has broken down and the team has been trying to row back to their starting point. In the group waiting for the boat to come back is Natalia, who has been trying to help Kherson’s street animals for the last several months. After the flood she has got in contact with animal charities in other cities of Ukraine, and has been sending rescued animals to shelters in Odesa, Kharkiv and Kyiv over the last several days. When the boat finally arrives, Natalia and her colleague take in the three kittens the team has brought back.

Uncooperative press

When they notice cameras, some volunteers engaged in the rescue work make unfavourable comments about the journalists. They believe the reporters brought the Russian shelling to one of the spots in Kherson, where the evacuation boats have been docking. They are also worried about the fact that some rescuers’ faces will be publicised. “You know, when the water came, the first people who got to the other side and managed to evacuate some people from there, were the people originally from there. They still have their families in the Russian-controlled areas and it’s better not to have them on cameras,” explains Olena, a volunteer who has been distributing food parcels over the last few days.

While we are talking with Olena, one of the volunteers approaches me and asks to pass a message to an Italian photographer who has been taking pictures in the area for several minutes. One of the people present does not want their photos published. The photographer says he would not publish any photos of the person in question but he did not delete any on his camera.

Many of the local residents are afraid that any current photos and videos from the city in public access can somehow help the enemy. The next day, while taking photos of a church damaged by Russian shelling some time ago, I was confronted by a woman living in the house across the street. Seeing me with the camera, she starts accusing me of working for the enemy. She screams, “You are a traitor, why are you taking those photos now? Wait for when the war is over and then come and take the photos.”

Despite this, the locals’ attitude to the press is not uniformly negative. Some trust the media and believe some coverage can help. But they hope the press pays more attention to what they actually have to say. Olena, who only left the left bank of the Dnipro in February this year, having made a journey through occupied Crimea, Russia and the Baltic states to come back to her apartment in Kherson, says she is frustrated by how little the international media report on the living conditions and the human rights violations in the occupied parts of Ukraine. “They don’t seem to believe our testimonies. Why don’t they seem to understand, that when the Russian soldiers are beating you up or robbing your house you are not in a position to film this to provide the proofs later on,” she says.

The curfew in Kherson is currently from nine in the evening till five in the morning. However, my temporary tour guide Mykola explains that the locals still try to finish all their most important business before three or four in the afternoon. This is a new habit developed during the occupation.

Living with war

Life in the city is also accompanied by the constant noise of artillery shelling. There is the sound of Russian shells coming into the city, and the noise of the Ukrainian artillery firing at targets on the left bank of the Dnipro. As one of the locals jokes when asked if there is a time of day when the shelling is less likely, “They can possibly have a siesta sometime in the middle of the day.”

Walking along the streets where the water had been several days ago, I notice some buildings that have been damaged by the shelling and later by the flood. Marks left by the water show how high it reached at its peak on June 9th.

As in every place in Ukraine forced to live under shelling, the locals can clearly distinguish between the noises made by incoming and outgoing shells. Kherson, however, is possibly the only Ukrainian city where the street sweepers wear flak jackets. It is certainly the only one where I have witnessed it. It is also the first place close to the combat zone in Ukraine, where the locals have asked me, “Why are you not wearing a flak jacket yet?” Soon I understand the reason why.

Volodymyr, a resident of Soborna Street – a spot which has been targeted by shelling for a long time – shows me a piece of shrapnel he picked up just outside of his apartment less than an hour ago. “The “fresh one”. It was still hot when I picked it up,” he says. Some Russian shells have definitely landed in the area in close proximity to Volodymyr’s home, but they were far enough for us not to see the landing spot. The shrapnel piece, a piece of metal with sharp edges about ten centimetres long and two centimetres wide, reached his backyard. This makes it clear that the residents risk being wounded even if they are a hundred metres away from the spot the shell lands.

Volodymyr’s house was hit by a Russian shell in January this year and the apartment on the top level of the building has been destroyed. In his place on the ground floor, the windows were shuttered. The shell has also damaged the water pipes in the building and the apartment was flooded in the middle of the winter.

Volodymyr does not have the means to repair the apartment fully. His windows are covered with plywood. Despite this, his mother Larysa is currently staying with him, as her own house is currently submerged by the flood. The house was built by Larysa’s father using local building techniques and materials – clay and straw. Larysa is afraid it will not survive the flood and will just fall apart.

But the shelling is not the biggest worry of the Kherson residents. The thing they are worried the most about is a possible explosion at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Everyone I talk to says that after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, they do not have any doubts the Russians would do that. It would not be an accident but a deliberate action involving explosives.

Back in her bakery, Ulyana says she is going to put some blankets, food supplies and water reserves in the basement, so she can spend some time there if there is an explosion at the power plant. She does not think the explosion is inevitable but also does not think the possibility is to be ignored.

Apart from a potential nuclear explosion, the locals have to worry about the possible local outcomes of the flood. It is not clear what will happen with the water supplies in the city. Kherson used to get its water from the destroyed Kakhovka reservoir. It is likely that the water has brought mines to the flooded parts of the city and time will be needed to clear the area after the water goes back to its normal level.

Among all these fears, the locals try to keep any elements of normality in their lives when it is possible. Later in the evening, I talk to Olia and her mother Tamara who are working on a flower bed, pulling out weeds. Olia says their neighbour used to take care of it, but since the Russian invasion began, she left for Spain and now the women are working on it, sending regular photo reports to their friend. Our conversation is accompanied by the noise of artillery fire. “It is loud, but we know it is an outgoing shell from our side, so it is OK. It would be a pity if the flower bed becomes full of weeds and the municipality workers come and cut the flowers together with it,” Olia says.

Due to unceasing artillery fire the rescue workers are at constant risk. As a result of the shelling on June 21st, one rescue worker was killed and 8 other injured.

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