The population is scarce in Kherson, a city flooded in a militarized river: "They want us to get out of here" | International
In another life, before the Russian invasion, the destruction of the Nova Kajovka dam in Ukraine would have caused a mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. But the towns that have been flooded in the final 60 kilometers of the Dnieper River, before it empties into the Black Sea, have long been virtually deserted. Kherson is a ghost town where death lurks in every street. Now, in addition to the holes and the ruins left by the artillery, there are neighborhoods submerged under water and residents who have lost what little they had left.
The Ukrainian government estimates that on both banks, along 60 kilometers of overflowing river, more than 40,000 people live in flooded areas and must be relocated. On the Ukrainian side, kyiv has reported the evacuation of nearly 2,000 residents; in the areas occupied by Russia the figure rises to 4,000, according to Russian media. These data confirm that the Dnieper, in this area, is uninhabited because it has been a front line for months.
The soldier stationed there turns a blind eye to the few citizens who approach the water on foot on Ushakovka avenue, the main street of the city. Formally it is forbidden for them to be there: just over a kilometer away are the Russian positions. Before Tuesday, people did not dare to stay there, quiet and watching, because the enemy was then half a kilometer away, within sniper range. The overflow of the river, after the collapse of the dam early Tuesday morning, has widened its channel and flooded the alluvial plains where the first line of Russian fire was located. On Ushakovka avenue, the water had entered the city by about 200 meters. In other neighborhoods, the flooding was much worse.
The curious wandered through the flooded urban areas to take pictures, as souvenirs or to send to relatives and friends who left the city long ago. "People are confident and come closer because today they have not fired at us with artillery, they are too busy with what they themselves have done," said the soldier stationed at the end of Ushakovka avenue on Wednesday. For the Ukrainian, European Union and NATO authorities there is little doubt that Russian troops destroyed the dam to stop a possible large-scale amphibious assault by Kiev troops.
The cannon shots of the Ukrainian artillery did sound every few minutes, with howitzers located in the city. A high-ranking member of the Army explained to this newspaper, on condition of anonymity, that one of the reasons why the Russian fire is punishing Kherson so much is because the Ukrainian artillery is constantly moving within the municipal area. "Humanitarian aid does not reach us because they want us to get out of here," said Vita, a woman who lives with her disabled son on the second line of the river. For the Ukrainian Armed Forces – also for the Russians – the population that insists on continuing to live in ground zero of the conflict is a problem because it hinders military operations.
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Vita received bags of bread and fruit from some volunteers that she would share with eight other neighbors. Because the truth is that in the municipality, among the few vehicles that circulated on Wednesday, many were SUVs and vans from aid and civil relief organizations that traveled to the area after the floods.
But not only the civilian population is a nuisance for the military authorities, but also the media. For the press, accessing the flooded areas of the river is an odyssey. The Ukrainian army has established this year a map of areas in which the media, officially, can only work with express authorization and accompanied by a military representative. A spokeswoman for the High Command justified to this newspaper the restrictions to not access Kherson because "they do not want to double the population of the city."
The military authorities do not want observers of the ongoing military operations, nor do they want their soldiers to be put at risk by the presence of the press. Last week, a video from the Ministry of Defense caused a furor on Ukrainian social networks in which soldiers from different units demanded silence from the population and not share information that could harm the counteroffensive. The Ministry of Defense has insisted that both the media and war analysts should not provide data other than the official ones.
EL PAÍS tried to access the municipalities adjacent to the Nova Kajovka dam but the military checkpoints prevented it, citing strict orders from its commanding officers not to allow the passage of the press. This military strategy contrasts with what Lena Kotok, a resident of Kherson, asked journalists: "Please inform the world of what we are suffering, of the evil that Russia is committing." "Not even the Ukrainians believe what it is like to live here," added her sister Lera de ella. The two went to visit the apartment of Lera's daughter on Wednesday afternoon, who fled Kherson in the spring of 2022 when Russian troops occupied the city. The apartment is in a building where the water affected the first floor. Lera was crying because they had indeed lost the most precious possession for them, the dachathe summer house that his grandparents built on an island near the Dnieper delta.
Better luck was the apartment of the daughter of Yuri and Tania, who also fled Kherson in 2022, to settle in Ireland. The water only brushed against the house and there was no electricity, but the adjoining building, an old two-story block, collapsed from the pressure of the water. The couple visits the apartment every few hours and they call her daughter by videoconference to show her that everything is going more or less well.
The life of the Perehorihatenko family has taken another turn this week. Their home has been under water and they have moved to live in the house of some relatives. Sasha, his wife Ana and his son Ilia went together to visit the painting and plating shop where the father works, also devastated by water. “As long as the Russians are here, the problems will continue, but we will resist, as we resisted the occupation and now the bombings,” says Anna.
100 kilometers from Kherson, following the river to the northeast, Svetlana Denisuk was calculating how many days of water she could have left for her two hectares of strawberry fields. Her business depends on the water that comes from the Kajovka reservoir, but the authorities have already warned her that possibly in two weeks she will not have a supply. "To do? Nothing, all this will die, there is nothing to do”, Denisuk was resigned. The economic disaster for the Ukrainian agricultural sector could be colossal, according to data from the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food: 94% of the irrigation network in the Kherson province has run out of water, 74% of that of Zaporizhia and the 30% of that of Dnipropetrovsk.
His life won't get as bad as an outside observer might believe, says Denisuk: Last year, his fields were a battleground and he couldn't get any use out of them either. At least they are demined, he adds. He prefers not to think about the future, he admits, while he insists on giving journalists a box of his strawberries: "Tell what happens here."
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