”We are all bitten, scratched, but happy because we managed to get everyone out.” Volunteer Yevhen Haustov tells how he rescued animals and people from flooded villages in the Kherson region

Yuliana Skibitska
Yevhen Spirin
”We are all bitten, scratched, but happy because we managed to get everyone out.” Volunteer Yevhen Haustov tells how he rescued animals and people from flooded villages in the Kherson region

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

In the first hours of June 6 Russian occupiers blew up the dam of the Kakhovka power plant. This unleashed massive flooding and the largest ecological catastrophe on the continent after 1986 Chornobyl NPP explosion. Babel conducts a series of express interviews about the situation in regions affected by the flood. Together with the team, Yevhen Haustov saves people and animals. It so happened that Yevhen was in the Kherson region on the day when the Russians blew up the hydroelectric power station. We talked with him about what is currently happening in the region and how volunteers save animals. If you want to help the animals affected by the flooding, here is a link to the bank of the charity fund where Yevhen works.

Where are you now, what is your situation?

Now [the conversation took place in the evening of June 8] we have already arrived closer to the Kakhovka HPP itself and are in the village of Lvove. We arrived here at night, in the morning we will issue a humanitarian aid, help with medicines. In the village where we will be tomorrow, 50 houses are completely sunk, 15 have been partially flooded.

When did you come to Kherson region?

It just so happened that we were going to Kherson a day before this disaster happened. We were going to those villages that are now under water. We spent the night in Mykolaiv city, woke up and realized that we had to change the plan, because there was no need for help where we were going. We arrived in Kherson, unloaded our things at the hub, completely freed the buses, and then still managed to get to the island part of the city and take people out of there. By 3 p.m. [of June 6], there was no longer a road there, the water had risen to such a level that it was impossible to pass by shortbuses.

What happened in the first days?

No one believed that the water would rise so much. We went to Ostriv, walked around and simply persuaded people to leave. Someone said: "I believe in God, he will help me." Someone said: "I live on the third floor, the water will not reach here." As far as I understand, it reached this level. We literally had one and a half to two hours to take people to the [aid] points — schools and a hospital were set up for this. People with limited mobility and the elderly were taken there. It was the first day and the water had not yet risen that much. The second day we were engaged in sailing on boats and taking out animals. And even found two people who had a tall house, they were sitting on the second floor and did not know what to do. The woman was immobile, so the [rescue] operation was very difficult. We could not yet sail the boat into the yard, because there was a fence sticking out. The boys dragged the boat into the yard, put a woman, her husband and a cat there. But mostly we rescued animals. There were different ones, even chickens.

How the evacuation of animals went? How did the animals react? They were probably in a state of shock — did they take the help calmly?

Not everyone was calm. I would even say it is a small percentage. The animals were simply exhausted and sat, sadly waiting for them to be taken away. Everyone is scared, everyone is stressed. Dogs bark, try to bite you. Many of our volunteers have been bitten. Therefore, the first task was either to put a muzzle on the dog, or there were even groups with veterinarians who shoot tranquilizers into animals. You could see unconscious dogs in the video, many thought they were already dead. But they were simply put to sleep because they behaved aggressively.

We had gloves that were thick enough to minimize damage. You put it in a cage, you swim to the shore, unload it — and follow the next ones. Some animals swam. I have a personal story about a dog that I followed for probably an hour and a half. He was frozen, wet, scratched all over because he fell under a slate in one place. While trying to catch this dog, I saw a cat near the house. And then the boys found him five yards from where I saw him.

It was difficult because animals donʼt sit and wait for you to take them away. We are all scratched, bitten. But we are happy because we managed to get everyone out.

How many animals were taken out in general, or you didnʼt count?

We didnʼt count.

What will happen next with these animals? Where do they go next?

Our animals were taken to Mykolaiv, where there is a state zoo. Other volunteers took them to Poltava, Kharkiv. Many are ready to accept animals, there are no problems with this. There are no problems with feed either. The Kakhovka tragedy showed that even after a year and a half, people can still unite and overcome any tragedy. Today, Kherson has everything — boats, clothes, humanitarian aid.

Did many animals died?

We havenʼt seen such yet. If they died, they were either in their cabin or inside a house. And the water is above the level of the first floor everywhere. Therefore, we will see the full picture when the water starts to leave.

How do you assess the scale of what you saw?

Whole streets were flooded, I donʼt know how to describe it. It looks terrible. I donʼt know how people will rebuild everything, because these are flooded houses, there will be cracks, something will be destroyed. On the first day, we didnʼt even imagine the consequences. We thought that the water would pass in a wave and everything would flow somewhere. And thought that this was for a maximum of two days. Yesterday [June 7] we worked until 10 p.m., and the water level was still rising. When we arrived, half a meter of fence was sticking out, and when we finished, it was no longer visible.

And what do people say? How do they hold on and survive all this?

The locals donʼt want to leave. Only people with reduced mobility who cannot take care of themselves are taken out of Kherson and the region. Those who are independent, of different ages — with their friends, relatives, can be stay the hospital. People believe the water level will fall quickly and they will return home.

Itʼs very optimistic.

Yes. Even here, in the region, near the hydroelectric power plant itself — where it is clear that there will be great destruction, local headman tells us that they need rubber boots, tools and construction materials — they say, the water will recede and we will go rebuild their houses.

And where are these people now? If you are directly near the hydroelectric station, I understand that there is a lot of flooding there.

If we take, for example, the village to which we will go tomorrow, half of the village is flooded there, some of their neighbors are in a dry part of the village or in the administrative center, which is about 10 kilometers from the coast. People moved temporarily. Some were taken by relatives, some by friends, some were accommodated in various administrative buildings. They hope that it will all pass very quickly, but the forecasts are that the water will stand still for at least a week. Although here, closer to the hydroelectric station, the water drains faster. Today [June 8] they say the level is much lower than two days ago. We spoke with the military, they said that there was no road to the village where we are going tomorrow, but the village headman said that it is already possible to pass there today.

Are you going to pick up animals again?

The head of the village said that there were 1,800 residents before the war, and almost 500 remain. All the animals there are fed by the military. But the military are such people who are here today and there tomorrow. Therefore, it makes sense to evacuate the animals before they go wild and the irreparable happens.

Many animals were abandoned, and not only because of the flooding, but also because of the war itself. We see it all the time. We ourselves, from Kharkiv, visited villages where not a single civilian remained, only hundreds of animals. Cows, goats, dogs. This is a very scary picture. The whole village is in holes from the "Grad" missiles, there are mostly broken houses — and animals are walking.

How much longer do you plan to be here?

Our task, roughly speaking, is to carry out reconnaissance. Because no one had information about the region. Everyone knows about Kherson, everyone goes there — all the volunteers, all the press, the president, but no one knows what is happening in the region. The coordinator from the regional administration told us about this village. He said: "Go there, we have no communication, there is a half-flooded village." We will specifically collect requests and needs and pass them on to other volunteers. Will share our experience on how to get here.

Yevhen, tell me finally if you need any help.

Personally, we donʼt, we have everything — the team, the resources. And the residents of this area need help with building materials, they need portable stoves, two-burner gas stoves, they need rubber shoes and chest-length overalls. We brought a lot of medicines, we have food, hygienic stuff, some childrenʼs stuff. But there were almost no children in those villages that flooded.

Yevhen, I thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us and for what you do. Take care and pet all the dogs and cats there from us, we are very worried about them.

Sure thing. And thank you for covering these events, bringing information to the whole world, and also doing important work.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.