”People are saved twice, from the flood and from the occupation.” Experience of photographers Stas Yurchenko and Stas Kozlyuk, who saw Kherson residents being evacuated from the left bank

Yevhen Spirin
”People are saved twice, from the flood and from the occupation.” Experience of photographers Stas Yurchenko and Stas Kozlyuk, who saw Kherson residents being evacuated from the left bank

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. Photographers Stas Yurchenko and Stas Kozlyuk got to Kherson and were there to evacuate people from the occupied left bank of the Dnipro River and, specifically, Oleshky. In the podcast, they talk about how people are taken out by boat, about rescuers, Russian shelling of evacuation points, and the work of journalists.

Tell us about how you traveled, how you got to Kherson, what you saw, who you met on the way.

Yurchenko: We left on Monday. Photographer Stas Kozlyuk ended up in Dnipro with a broken car, and we decided that if we were to go to work, it would be better and easier in a group anyway. We wanted to buy a supply of water because there were rumors that a bottle of water in Kryvyi Rih costs 500 hryvnias. We thought that it was somehow too much. We decided to buy water immediately in the Dnipro, collected about 150 liters. It feels bad to go to such places empty-handed, because you have to try not only to do your journalistic work, but also to help people whenever possible. In Kryvyi Rih, we went to the ATB store, there were no large bottles, but the ones on 1,5 liters cost the same as in Dnipro city. Thatʼs why we went to Kherson region already filled with drinking water.

Do I understand correctly that in some places the price of water has been raised to 500 hryvnias per 5-liter-can?

Kozlyuk: No, we couldnʼt verify this. This was written in social networks, but in stores, for example, in Kryvyi Rih, we looked at the prices for water, and there was no such thing.

What did you do, what did you see, what did you film?

Yurchenko: We arrived in the city and immediately went to work. Our journalist colleagues showed us the point where the local residents of the flooded areas were evacuated. We arrived there, and, without even throwing things anywhere, rushed to film. We arrived at the place, and evacuation was already taking place, boats with people and animals arrived. We saw two processes in parallel. There were zoo volunteers who sailed on small rubber boats purely for animals. And separately there were more powerful boats, metal, with motors. They swam further and took people. With us, one of the boats sailed to Oleshky. We looked at this departing boat as if it were some kind of miracle, we understood that it was sailing to a territory that was not controlled by our troops.

That is, it is not even a gray zone, it is a zone of occupation, and itʼs very dangerous. By then, the video with a boy catching water bottle from a drone had already gone viral. And so it happened that literally in an hour we saw this boy alive. His family, his mother, his cats, dogs were brought, the military followed them. They were brought, and only then did the boy learn that the whole country saw him. The boy turned out to be surprisingly intelligent and mature. He talked very systematically about how they lived during the occupation, how they had to climb onto the roof, how everything around them was flooded. And for me it was, to be honest, something so terrible. Because you look, this is a child holding a cat, and he has to tell you about all kinds of bullshit, and he tells you very serious, very sad things. It hurts to see this. But it was simply incredible to see the emotions of people who not only got out of the flood, they got out of the occupation — and they were crying. These tears of happiness are something incredible, because there is tragedy all around, you understand that, but still there is a place for something beautiful.

Kozlyuk: I understand that our military planned operations to evacuate people from that territory. Yes, it can be understood that these are people who were not just affected by the flood, these are people who have been under occupation for a long time, and this is simply a double rescue.

Have you talked to the military? What about the mines, as everything is floating in the water now?

Kozlyuk: Actually, we didnʼt have time to talk much with the military. They said that one of the dangers is the Russians who stay on the left bank, they can fire at the boats. And, unfortunately, as far as we know, this is what they are doing.

We all saw this video yesterday, where during the evacuation the occupiers just shot at the boats.

Yurchenko: This is a little different. There was artillery shelling, then there were "Hrad" missiles launched at the evacuation point, and here it was clear that the Russians fire at the places where people are being evacuated. We did not talk about mines in particular, but we were said that there is such a problem that mines are torn off, washed away, and that they can now be anywhere where the current brings them. It is not clear what to do with this.

They wrote that some wastelands were flooded and that now all the water is contaminated. Have you heard anything like that?

Yurchenko: We talked to the locals, they said about flooded cemeteries, that in these villages and towns, which are closer to the river, the graves were washed away. So much of all kinds of crap was washed away, and it all went into the sea. In Odesa, people are now really worried about whether there will be some kind of epidemic. There, a house washed up on the beach, and people still continue to walk and swim. Somehow they donʼt really understand that now itʼs really not okay to do this.

As of yesterday, there was a report that 2,500 people were evacuated. Did you see them being evacuated?

Yurchenko: Yes, we did. This is done by rescuers, military personnel, and employees of the State Emergency Service. Many thanks to them, they do a lot there. We spent a few busy hours with them yesterday. Civilians are also engaged in evacuation. Many volunteers have brought boats and are sailing. Already today, volunteers were asked not to go to Kherson with boats, because there were too many volunteers, and a lack of communication. And again, the Russians, when they see a large crowd of people, start shooting.

Have you communicated with the people you saved? Because we spoke with the evacuation fund yesterday, and they told us that mostly elderly people are being taken from the left bank, and that not all people want to leave, that people are sitting on the roofs and waiting for the water to recede.

Kozlyuk: On the first day when we arrived, literally five minutes after we started filming, a boat arrived somewhere from the dachas. This is such an area on the islands near Kherson, and this area was a gray zone for some time. They brought several people from there, there was a woman who looked sixty years old. She said that she had a husband left in the house that flooded. Why did the man stay? Because there is a garden, animals, and he is sitting somewhere on the second floor with all these animals, saving himself from the flood. As far as I know, the rescuers were thinking about how to get him out of there. Indeed, there are people who do not want to evacuate for various reasons. Someone does not want to leave the house, someone has chickens, geese, goats, cows... So they are just waiting.

Yurchenko: We saw a five-story building, and there was an old man sitting on the fourth floor. A volunteer approached him, talked to him, returned and told us that the old man was sitting there and did not want to get out. He is okay there, maybe he will get out tomorrow. But he says that he said "tomorrow" yesterday, and most likely, he will say it tomorrow as well. The problem is that at that moment the water near the entrance door was waist-deep. Whether the water will not rise tomorrow and whether it will be possible to get him out of there by opening the door, itʼs hard to say. Maybe he will have to just jump from the window into the water, just like that. At the same time, they say: we will not evacuate, but please bring us water.

Have you seen the doctors who provide care or the psychologists who work there?

Kozlyuk: We saw psychologists. Among the employees of the State Emergency Service. I have a very nice photo where the emergency psychologist hugs the lady who just got saved, she looks at him with incredible gratitude. He comforted her. I have seen psychologists at many evacuation sites. I have seen them work. Unfortunately, many people in our country still do not understand how traumatic war is — not only from a physical point of view, but also from an emotional and psychological point of view. That half of our country will have PTSD and itʼs better to start treating mental health issues right away. Because, in my opinion, people who refuse psychological help after being evacuated do not understand that after all, itʼs better to talk to a psychologist.

Yurchenko: We didnʼt see medics directly at work in the places where we were, because, fortunately, the people they brought didnʼt need urgent medical help. The emergency services call their colleagues back, they are told about the injured among their colleagues, they try to understand where and who was injured, because these are their friends. I will never forget how the psychologist of the State Emergency Service at one point says: "To hell with it" and goes to the epicenter of the shelling, where there are so many hits — and he goes because his colleagues are there.

How did anyone prevent journalists and photographers or you from working there?

Yurchenko: In fact, the biggest obstacle to work is the Russian occupiers. It is always possible to solve problems with access, you can enter the city at will, you can drive, you can negotiate, because the military understands our work, and the press officer who is currently working in Kherson also understands our work very well. That is, no one put a stick in our wheels, we worked calmly, right up until the moment when the Russians started shelling the evacuation points.

We lay under such heavy shelling for an hour, we were able to get out of there, the military brought us our car, which miraculously survived in the epicenter of the shelling. We heard that some journalists were packed directly into buses and asked to leave the city, and to be honest, we thought a little, got into the car and got out if there, we didnʼt expect anyone to ask us to do it. After all, there is a difference between when you can do your work, you have to do it, and itʼs very necessary — and when you can interfere with important work of others. There are different ways to get in the way: I, for example, think that I would be very embarrassed if rescuers, medics or the military spent resources on me trying to save my life, because I put myself in such a position that Iʼm at a very high risk.

Yesterday, my military friends wrote to me and asked me to pass it on to all my fellow journalists so that they donʼt launch unpatched drones. They say to the military: we see these drones, we see them perfectly, the Russians see them too. After that, everything is bombarded. Of course, the place that was shelled yesterday was shown to the whole world because Mr. Zelensky was there. For me, yesterdayʼs shelling is something really crazy. The Russians shoot civilians, journalists, and medical workers right on camera. Why? Just because they can, they pee in the eyes of the entire democratic world: "Look, we not only blew up the dam, but people are being evacuated, and we will still target them directly. And what will you do to us? Nothing".

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.