Photo: Petr Ruzavin / Mediazona
Following the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam, Kherson has been partially submerged. For three days, volunteers on boats have been rescuing residents of the flooded areas. They ask those trapped to hang towels in their windows to indicate where help is needed. Petr Ruzavin hopped onto one of these evacuation boats and documented the conversations while sailing through the deserted courtyards.
On the first day after the dam’s destruction, Korabelnaya Square became the main gathering point where evacuees and animals were brought. Several streets leading to the round-shaped square were continually flooded. One of these streets leads to the bridge to the most water-damaged area, Korabel.
Volunteers brought water to a small monument in the square, where the police, military, and rescuers were also on duty. Local residents brought inhabitants of flooded homes and dogs found along the way on boats.
“Go to the nine-story building and turn right. There are people there, two men in an apartment,” a girl asks the volunteers on the boat. “Please, take them.” There are dozens of such requests.
It’s clear to the naked eye that the water level is rising. I found myself at Korabelnaya Square on the evening of June 6. Within half an hour, the dry spot where I had parked my car turned into a puddle 15 centimetres (6 inch) deep. By the next day, the square was completely underwater.
On the Left Bank, still occupied by the Russian army, there’s sound of artillery fire. At some point, the police suddenly leave the square: the flooding does not cancel the constant threat of targeted shelling.
Kherson Region is one of Ukraine’s regions most affected by the war. After six months of occupation and almost daily shelling, the destruction of the dam initially seemed to offer a respite, as the positions from which the city was being fired upon were theoretically flooded. However, the explosions continued.
On the first day, as Ukrainian authorities report, an evacuation convoy came under fire, injuring two police officers. On June 8, when Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in the city, an elderly man being evacuated by volunteers on a boat sustained a head injury.
The city is now filled with dogs rescued from the flooded areas. The population has significantly decreased, from around 300,000 before the full-scale Russian invasion to barely 50,000 now, as most residents have left.
The water continued to rise even on the second day after the dam’s destruction. Local residents took to boats to evacuate. Many people and animals took refuge on rooftops, waiting for volunteers to rescue them. Many areas have no electricity.
Natalia Kozova, an elderly woman in a purple tracksuit and leopard-print trousers, barefoot, with a dog on a leash, disembarks from the boat onto the asphalt. “What’s happening here? A flood. In the 45 years we’ve lived here, this is the first time we’ve seen anything like this. The water started rising yesterday evening, and by this morning it had reached and flooded the first entrance of our building,” she says.
“The entire first floor is completely flooded, and we live on the third, so we waited until the last moment. There are still five people left in our building, they don’t want to leave. Mostly because of their age. We’re going to our son’s apartment now. We’ll see what happens when all this subsides,” says Natalia.
Serhiy and Ihor, two smiling men just over thirty, navigate an inflatable boat among the houses of the Shuminsky district, collecting the few people who remain here.
“Our beloved city! But there’s no city left. Kherson has become Italy,” they laugh. “Venice has dried up, but we’re the opposite.”
“Right, but we need to be careful, so that neither a mine nor any other nasty thing gets in our way in the water. Can you see any towels?” they ask. Volunteers ask people to hang towels in the windows of their apartments to indicate willingness to evacuate.
Ihor says he used to work at a car wash. Serhiy laid pavings. “Now we’re sitting, waiting. There’s no work in the city,” they say, but admit that they don’t plan to leave Kherson. “But where to live now?”
The boat docks at the entrance of a flooded nine-story residential building, where they need to check the apartments. We go up to the entrance with Serhiy, knocking on all the doors. On the top floor, a woman in a home clothing comes out and says she won’t go anywhere: “Where are we to go? We have cats, parrots, children.”
As Serhiy and I descend the stairs, he explains why many refuse to evacuate. “Well, where are people supposed to live? They don’t want to sleep in a hostel with a crowd, some have pets, everything else, you have to understand that home is home,” he says.
“This water—I don’t know what will happen with the water now—it won’t be drinkable, neither from wells nor anywhere else. See those bubbles in the water? That’s sewage coming out,” says Serhiy.
It’s already clear that the region is facing both an ecological and a humanitarian disaster. Kherson Region is very agricultural. Local residents fear that the flooding will render the fields unfit for cultivation. And that means that people who fled from the occupation and shelling may never return home—there won’t be any work here.
Editor: Dmitry Tkachev
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