”People who didnʼt take Russian passports are not allowed to evacuate from the left bank.” Interview with aerial scout Santa, who drops water and food to people on the occupied areas with drones

Ghanna Mamonova
Yuliana Skibitska, Yevhen Spirin
”People who didnʼt take Russian passports are not allowed to evacuate from the left bank.” Interview with aerial scout Santa, who drops water and food to people on the occupied areas with drones

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

n 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. A border guard with the call sign "Santa" is an aerial scout — he directs a drone to the occupied left bank of the Dnipro River and drops water and food on people. A video of Santa throwing a bottle of water at a woman who climbed out of her rooftop window has gathered millions of views. People on the occupied left bank are experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe, they are blocked by water, they have nothing to eat and drink. The Russians do not evacuate people and shoot at those who try to save them. "Babel" talked to Santa between his flights.

Russia blew up the Kakhovka HPP in the Kherson region on the night of June 6

  • An evacuation was announced in the region. As a result of the accident, 48 settlements were flooded in Kherson region, of which 34 (3,625 houses) were in the territory controlled by Ukraine, and 14 were in the temporarily occupied territory. 2,412 people were evacuated from the affected areas. In the Mykolaiv region, 23 settlements were flooded, and 825 people were evacuated from there.

  • As of 12:00 p.m. on June 9, four people were killed in the Kherson region due to Russians blowing up the Kakhovka HPP, and another 13 people are considered missing. One person died in the Mykolayiv region.

  • Due to the breach of the dam, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is under threat, there is a risk of depriving people of drinking water in the south of the Kherson region and Crimea, and the destruction of part of the population centers and the biosphere. According to Ukrainian intelligence, the Russians deliberately blew up the dam, but they did it chaotically, causing their military equipment to sink.

We are recording this interview on the morning of June 9. You are on duty now. Tell me, have you already taken off? What did you see? Is the water rising or has it stopped?

Good morning. Of course, we work from sunrise to sunset. Weather conditions are very difficult now. It is reported that it will be even more difficult. Therefore, we are currently thinking about what to do, how to continue our work.

Is the wind very strong?

Yes, the wind is very strong and it is from the east. Sometimes itʼs better to work when it blows either towards you or behind you.

Where did you fly to today? What did you see?

I saw people today in Oleshky, in the central part. There is no massive flooding there. In two days, the civilian population somehow regrouped. People help each other. Boats were used to transport each other to unflooded places.

There are separate buildings where people sit on the roofs. Neither civilians nor our rescue services can reach them. Because it is a deep [Russian] rear.

Can you fly up to people and throw them water or something? Is it a very long distance?

In order to deliver water, you have to descend literally to the level of people. Aerial reconnaissance is from 500 meters above sea level. That is, modern equipment — drones, cameras — allow you to enlarge images. You are physically very high and can conduct reconnaissance. If you just go down to these people, the probability of losing the drone is about 99%.

Maybe they see you and thus understand that we remember them, are trying to save them?

The vast majority of the population is already in the central part of Oleshky, conditionally safe. And in these remote points, people do not see me one hundred percent. Itʼs like watching a bird in the sky at a high altitude.

In previous days, to which villages did you fly on the left bank of the Dnipro River?

The area we are working on is Oleshky, Solontsi, Kardashynka, Gola Prystan, Sagy, Nechayeve. There is a lot of water there. Almost everything is flooded, the water is at the level of trees and power lines. I canʼt even imagine how to evacuate people, how to survive it all. It is very difficult to even watch.

People go to the roofs of houses, somehow try to inform their whereabouts through acquaintances. But the enemy prevents the rescue mission.

People who did not take Russian passports are generally prohibited from evacuating from these settlements. On the phone, they tell their friends on the right bank that they are turning to that [Russian] side for help, and there is only one answer: "Go get a passport, and then we will do something."

How do you understand which place you need to fly to, that it is there that people need food and water?

But everyone needs it, I have not yet seen a single person who would refuse help. The population is trapped, everyone without exception needs help. Even moral support is valuable — just hover over them, turn on some lights or give a sign that we see them and donʼt forget them. Even in that situation with the transfer of water to the woman, it is no longer a secret, a message was attached to the bottle — hold on, donʼt panic, evacuation is being prepared. This somehow calmed them down a little. Although I donʼt know how one can not panic or keep calm when the water level is rising and there is no way out.

Tell me about this woman and the children you saved. You have already seen them in Kherson. How did you know they needed help? I know that it was very difficult to dump the water on them. How did you manage it and what did they tell about the first days of flooding?

We have our own closed channels of information transmission. And so information appeared in our military access that people needed help. That is, I did not physically notice them. But our crew is one of the first to respond to this request. Before that, we worked according to the usual plan — aerial reconnaissance to detect the enemyʼs positions. The enemy is now retreating further to the rear. When they saw the information that the civilian population — our citizens — needed help, there was not even a choice as such. We stopped our usual work and directed all our efforts to save this family.

Have you tied a water bottle to a drone and flown it three times?

So. In general, those drones are not for military purposes, but in the conditions of war, we have adapted. There are systems for dropping grenades — "gifts" to the occupiers. We just replaced the warhead with a bottle of water, they are about the same weight. We picked up a bottle that fits our equipment in shape and flew.

I knew that other crews had delivered bananas to this family, so I focused on water. My crew guys wrote them a note. I just wrote my call sign on this note.

The moment you drop the water bottle is so poignant. Canʼt believe you hit that little window?

We did not succeed on the first try. When I saw this family in Kherson, I apologized that this happened. Perhaps, to some extent, the skill was not enough, although the experience is great. Itʼs like shooting a gun and hitting exactly ten. This window is not as big as it seems in the video.

Then you helped the rescuers, showed how to swim to this family. Eleven more people were evacuated together with them. And you told me earlier that there was a man with dogs who spent several hours in the water, holding on to the roof of the house. Tell me about it.

One takeoff attempt takes about half an hour. That is, prepare the equipment, replace the batteries. You have to fly there about three and a half to four kilometers. Then you still need to stabilize there, drop the bottle and return home. Just dropping the bottle is two minutes.

After another departure, we noticed that a man was holding on to the roof of this womanʼs house. He was sitting in a boat, with two or three dogs. He wanted to sail somewhere to land, but the current is such that you can only sail in a boat with a good motor. Therefore, all he could do was cling to the roof with his hands and wait for rescue. He stayed in the water for about three hours. He periodically doused himself and the dogs with water. Then he was rescued. This woman and her children also had animals — two cats. They were also taken away. In total, 13 people were rescued from this area.

This mother has an interesting story with her children. Her name is Kateryna. They and their son and daughter were constantly under occupation, since February 24. Before the liberation of Kherson, she still lived with her father and mother. But the elderly woman went to Kherson for groceries, the next day the city was liberated, so she could no longer return to the left bank. The family was divided. Katerynaʼs father got on a boat after the hydroelectric power plant was blown up and wanted to swim for help, but he was swept away by the current. They were all saved. But if Kateryna was on the shore in Kherson around five oʼclock in the evening, her father was brought there at 11 oʼclock in the evening. Now the whole family is together.

Did you also dump water or take food to other people on the left bank?

Our drone is not designed to carry anything heavy. The battery charge is not enough to return it home after that. We fasten something with a weight of no more than 600 grams. If we bring something from food, we fasten protein bars, but most often we pass water, because it is hot now.

You help rescuers on boats to reach people — you indicate the route.

Yes, Iʼm like a fairway. They focus on the drone and follow me. And when they return, they already know the route, I donʼt accompany them.

Tell me, please, what you see in the water during flights. There are many reports that corpses of dead people and animals are floating. The cemetery was flooded, with coffins floating.

No, I donʼt see that. Maybe I donʼt notice because of the strong current. But I heard such information. I canʼt confirm it, but if you think logically, this really could happen. The current is very powerful, many areas are flooded. If someone had livestock, and the water rose rapidly, then you will not take the animal with you.

How fast did the water rise?

Very, very fast. Specifically, in our area — opposite Oleshky and the city of Kherson — in two hours the water level rose from the middle of the first floor to the roof of the second. I donʼt know how many meters it is, I say what I saw. If it is an ordinary two-story house in the private sector, then at nine oʼclock in the morning the water was up to the windows of the first floor, and by eleven oʼclock in the morning everything was already flooded up to the roof.

I saw on the video that the water even rose to the tops of the trees. Garbage clings to the branches. The water also rose to the level of power lines.

Yes. This can be seen even in the video where we drop the bottle. I just donʼt know who installed it. But you can see the trees and how garbage clings to them.

I donʼt know who edited the video? You didnʼt post it?

No, I donʼt know, but I can say this: this is a gross violation of safety rules, especially in such a situation. You see, the video was posted, but the evacuation itself has not yet happened. The enemy saw it as well, nothing prevented Russians from raising its copters, observing the situation and at the moment when there was immediate evacuation, to inflict fire damage. We were all very worried about it. But I donʼt even know who shared this video.

Do you see Russians on the left bank? Where are the occupation troops, have their positions been flooded? Did you see them evacuate people, or did you see them refuse to evacuate them?

They evacuate only themselves. In the first hours after the disaster, heavy equipment left, they fled. And the infantry still remained. They are grouped together. No more than ten people in one place. There are not many of them. They are mostly hidden, only accidentally can be noticed in the frame. My understanding is that they have some ammunition left here, so they are trying to drag it away with them. The enemy retreats.

Donʼt they help people?

No, I did not observe them helping anyone.

We canʼt get all the people out en masse right now, but there are individual boats trying to come to the left bank. Are the Russians firing at us when we are evacuating people?

Yes, yesterday at approximately three oʼclock in the afternoon in Kherson, the areas of Naberezhna and River Port were shelled. There are wounded. For what purpose the Russians are doing this — I, unfortunately, do not know, but the shelling was precisely at the points where the evacuation is taking place.

Santa, can we say your name at the end of the conversation? Tell me a little about yourself — something that can be told.

My name is Oleg, I am 31 years old. I entered military service under a contract in 2017, that is, it has already been his sixth year. I am from Kherson, I was born, grew up and spent my whole life here. I just studied in Kyiv at the Polytechnic Institute. I met a full-scale invasion on the border with the temporarily occupied territory of Crimea — Kalanchak, Chaplynka.

I am not married, but I have a girlfriend who supports me very much. She is also in Kherson, and I canʼt do anything about it. A family is not an army where you can give an order and watch it being carried out.

We have been engaged in aerial reconnaissance since December last year — a little over six months. This attention of the media to me is a little strange now. I am an ordinary and modest person, I do not like a lot of attention to myself.

Was your house flooded?

No, fortunately, the parentsʼ house was not flooded either. They live in a five-story apartment. In Kherson, the first districts from the Antonivsky bridge and to the west were badly affected. There is a private sector, and it is a disaster. Some 50-70 meters of water flooded the coastline. But now the water is slowly receding.

Do you see this when you take off?

Yes, the water level in Kherson is falling, but on the other bank — the left — itʼs terrible. For example, such a settlement as Solontsi is completely under water.

I hear you are being called because you are on combat duty. Thank you for agreeing to talk and telling me how you help people on the left bank to save themselves. We are infinitely grateful to you and your compatriots.

Step by step, we will return everything and rebuild everything. The main thing is to end the war, and then we will figure everything out.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

Babel journalists work in Kherson. We do what we know how to do: we collect aid and talk about the catastrophe in which the occupying forces are to blame. Support with us those who fight for our victory and save lives.