“Total clusterfuck, son, excuse my language.” How residents of the occupied and flooded city of Oleshki spent the first night after the dam destruction in Ukraine
Алла Константинова|Павел Васильев
“Total clusterfuck, son, excuse my language.” How residents of the occupied and flooded city of Oleshki spent the first night after the dam destruction in Ukraine

Новая Каховка 7 июня 2023 года. Фото: Алексей Коновалов / ТАСС

Evacuation requires a phone registration, and Russian authorities have blocked entry into the city, not even allowing volunteers who want to help rescue people. Meanwhile, locals’ boats are being confiscated. This is what eyewitnesses of the flooding in Oleshki, a city of 25,000 people in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, told Mediazona about the first day after the Nova Kakhovka dam collapesed pushing water levels up to the second floor.

Dozens of cities and towns in the Kherson region were submerged after the dam at the Nova Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station’s dam was destroyed on June 6. Residents of many of these places spent the night on attics and rooftops. According to the volunteers, the most severe situation is in the city of Oleshki, which is 60 kilometres (37 miles) downstream from Nova Kakhovka. People are being evacuated from the city, which is 80% flooded, by neighbours on boats, while evacuation buses from the Russian occupation administration are idle. Locals are reporting the first fatalities and missing relatives.

“An 84-year-old grandmother called in the evening, crying and saying goodbye to us on the phone,” says Ukrainian Nila Avdeenko, whose relatives living in Oleshki had been out of contact for eight hours by the time of the conversation. “Even the war didn’t scare her as much as this flood. She said: ‘I could survive the war, but I doubt I can survive the flood.’ She says the house won’t last long and will collapse—there is an attic, but it’s of no use... There’s nowhere to take shelter—it’s all fields, a cemetery, and small houses around.”

Another native of Oleshki, Natalia Khitruk, has two cousins and her daughter’s fiancé living in the city. Natalia didn’t sleep on the night of June 7. At three in the morning, relatives told her that the water had already reached the level of the second floor. “The water was rising quickly, very quickly, in the dark,” Natalia recounts. “They gathered people from single-storey houses on the street, but by night the level had risen to the second floor, and they were already in the attic. My daughter’s fiancé got stuck there, plus 13 other people, three of them small children—two, three years old. They had very poor reception in the attic, so I started writing in the evacuation group, asking them to put their geolocation on the map. But we only had contact with them until morning—no one came to pick them up from three in the morning.”

Natalia says her application was two hundredth in line. On the morning of June 7, she submitted another application for the evacuation of 14 people from the attic of a house on Krasnoarmeyskaya street. Khitruk says her sister called her around three in the afternoon and reported that the children had been evacuated from the house in the morning, and the remaining adults were taken out later.

“First they said: ‘Write in the evacuation application, how many people’, and from about six in the morning they asked us to specify how many of these people were children, adults, and elderly—that is, they first take children from all houses as a priority,” she says.

“Russian authorities confiscated the boats”

According to the latest data from the Ukrainian Emergency Services and the Kherson Regional Administration, after the Nova Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station dam collapse, 20 settlements and 2,612 houses on the right bank of the Dnipro river were flooded, and 1,854 people were evacuated. “About 15,000 homeowners in the Kherson region are flooded due to the destruction of the dam,” writes TASS, a Russian state news agency, citing the Russian-appointed authorities of the occupied territories. On the morning of June 7, the agency reported about 2,700 flooded houses and nearly 1,300 evacuated.

The head of the occupation administration, Vladimir Saldo, reported in the morning that between 22,000 and 40,000 people in the Russian-controlled territory of the Kherson region were in the flood zone after the dam destruction.

The first to be flooded on June 6 was Nova Kakhovka itself, as the water level, according to RBC, rose by 10–12 meters (up to 40 feet), and by noon on June 7, it had only dropped by 50 centimeters (less than 2 feet). Meanwhile, in the area of the cities of Oleshki and Hola Prystan, the maximum rise of water is “expected” today, TASS writes on the evening of June 7, citing Saldo.

Ukraine and Russia are accusing each other of deliberately destroying the hydroelectric power station which was located in the Russian-controlled territory. Engineers interviewed by the New York Times suggest that the dam could have been blown up from the inside. This version coincides with the Ukrainian position: last year, its authorities reported that Russia had mined the facility and was preparing to blow it up.

People from flooded houses in Oleshki are being taken out on boats by local residents remotely coordinated by volunteers, Ekaterina Pirozhinskaya, one of the moderators of the “Oleshki-evacuation” chat, tells Mediazona. There is also a mutual aid chat in the nearby flooded city of Hola Prystan. Messages about people in flooded areas appear in the chat but the owners of the boats, who are busy with the evacuation, have no time for conversations with journalists, which they immediately warn about.

According to Pirozhinskaya, the entry to Oleshki is blocked by Russian occupation authorities; they do not even let in those who want to help in rescuing people. “First of all, they are evacuating Oleshki itself—the water is up to four meters, but it seems to have stopped rising,” says the volunteer. “From the help chat, we collect messages, put [addresses] on the map, connect boats when we find them. How many volunteers, it’s hard to say, considering remote communication—hundreds, but on the spot—very few.”

There are “very few” volunteers who move around Oleshki on boats and evacuate people, “we are talking about a handful of boats,” says Vyacheslav. He also coordinates the removal of people from flooded houses. “The forces I heard about are five-six-ten boats, and the number of evacuation requests counts in the hundreds, and there are usually three-four people in one location, sometimes ten,” he says. “At the same time, I know people who tried to drive [to Oleshki] were not let in.”

Judging by the messages in the chats, the owners of motor boats involved in the evacuation are now running out of fuel, says Natalia Khitruk. “People are passing keys to flooded houses through acquaintances: take the boat there, but there are no oars, or something else is missing, or it’s impossible to get there. It’s a total collapse,” sighs the Ukrainian woman.

Upon hearing the question about the work of the Emergency Services, Khitruk starts to laugh nervously. “The Emergency Services disappeared literally three months after the occupation,” she says. “Of course, there’s nothing. The military administration are dealing with all this. I know that yesterday at noon, when the flooding began, they were taking boats from people. But now none of the Russian military are helping.” The night before, Yaroslav, a native of Oleshki, told Mediazona that the occupation administration had prepared buses for evacuation, but by that time it was already impossible to reach their parking lot from the flooded areas.

“Over 100 buses have been gathered in the coastal areas to evacuate people,” promised the Russian-appointed authorities of the region the day before. “Five thousand beds are being prepared in safe places for the accommodation of the evacuated.”

The Emergency Services are “unable to cope” with the flooding, volunteer Anna told Mediazona on the evening of June 6. The communication is poor, people can’t get definitive information, “they call different Emergency Services numbers, and so far it all looks like a big mess.”

“Volunteers were ready to help today, the boats were ready, but the Russians took their boats, the city is closed to entry and exit, they did not let these boats through,” Artem Kovalchuk explains. “Boats coming from Dzhankoy are also not allowed through, because... Well, as I understand it, this is a deliberate genocide. My family has been affected by this disaster.”

Artem forwards a video that his friend’s mother filmed from the roof. “Look at what’s happening,” she shows her yard flooded with murky water. “Total clusterfuck, the bloody Russian world. Son, forgive the language, but I have no other words.”

As soon as his relatives learned about the flood, they immediately went up to the neighbours on the second floor, Kovalchuk continues. “Then the water started to approach very quickly,” he recounts. “Before that, they had managed to make a raft, started to go around the nearby houses and also pick up neighbours, there are actually a lot of elderly people there who are not very mobile. They took them to a two-storey house, they were sitting on the second floor. Today the water was right at the level of the second floor. They were knee-deep in water there. Miraculously, they managed to contact a boat, drop locations, because you can’t see anything, the house number nor the street. My acquaintance found them and took them to dry patch of land in the centre, where there is not so much water. It’s terrible, what the army of terrorists is doing on my land. I’m at a loss for words.”

Among the people who need urgent evacuation, there are many disabled people and people with medical conditions who cannot get out of the flooded houses on their own. There is no information yet about their fate, says volunteer Ekaterina Pirozhinskaya.

Artem Kovalchuk’s family, according to him, has one casualty. “My own brother’s grandfather drowned on Kommunarov Street in Oleshki,” he told Mediazona. “But they managed to save my grandmother after all.”

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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