Boats, cats and documents
Despite the flood, there is active traffic on Korabelna Square in Kherson. Metal and rubber boats depart from improvised piers to rescue people and animals trapped in the water. A few dozens of meters away are the rescuersʼ tents, where you can eat, drink and ask for other help. Several soldiers can be seen in the crowd: men with weapons walk among the people, intently looking around. The bridge leading to the Korabel microdistrict is crossed by a group of rescuers. A lake has formed in the place where there was a road junction a few days ago, and a boat is drifting in the middle of it: its engine failed. Two people are trying hard to start it.
A sharp whistle pierces the ear. It seems to pour from all sides at the same time. The soldier next to us falls into the grass. We fall next to each other. An explosion is just 50 meters from us. A several-meter-high fountain of dirty water and debris rises into the sky.
“Shelling!”, someone on the square shouts.
People start running away.
A few hours ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky left here. He came to the city to see how people were being evacuated. Therefore, the territory was closed to journalists and volunteers for a long time. At around 1:00 p.m. on June 8, the passageway was reopened, and people started coming in: cars with humanitarian aid (water, food and clothes for those saved from the flood) were driving from all the streets leading to the square. Minibuses and trucks with cages, diapers and fodder — for animals. And, separately, passenger cars with boats on trailers. These boats are of various shapes and sizes: large and small, rubber and metal, those taken from civilians, and those belonging to rescuers. There are even several expensive river boats — anything that can float and has a motor is put to use to save people and animals.
"We are forbidden to take journalists on the boats. Unless you go with the volunteers somewhere. But they donʼt have much space, and they donʼt all sail to Korabel, — says lifeguard Pavlo. — There are very strong currents there, so not all watercraft will be suitable. A lot of people still remain on Korabel: they are stuck in the high-rises. Only today, in half a day, we took 150 people out of there. And now we are waiting for a few more boats from there. A few more should go there." Pavlo is dressed in a rubber semi-overall. Thereʼs a bulletproof vest under it, a helmet is on his head. He tells us to be careful: the Russians may start shelling.
A rescue boat is mooring to an electric pole. Several emergency service workers disembark from it, all wearing bulletproof vests and helmets. They wearily sit down on the grass. Their colleague brings a hot lunch. He says itʼs time to take a breather and rest a little. A volunteer in civilian clothes is walking in the crowd with a box of strawberries. The berries are neatly laid out in plastic trays. No one knows where they came from.
“You take it, donʼt ask where theyʼre from. I have no idea. Just some kind people brought some boxes of berries here. They gave it to us and asked to distribute. So I go and distribute. Come on, take the strawberries, donʼt be shy. They are very tasty, sweet," laughs the volunteer.
Several rescuers and soldiers approach us. Everyone takes a tray of berries. They nod their heads gratefully and move aside. "Strawberries! Strawberries! Take it, donʼt be shy!", shouts the man and goes on.
Another boat with the rescued arrives. It stands five meters from the shore, if the unflooded part of the road can be called that. Rescuers borrow a rubber boat from volunteers to transport people to land. An elderly woman is moved first, followed by a man. Both are a little scared, but happy. A lifeguard walks in front of the boat, confidently cutting through the dirty brown water with his chest. He has a bag in his hands, from which humming is heard. A woman being helped overboard shouts:
“Be careful! There is my cat! Hold it tight, please! Itʼs a kitten! We are almost there, all is well. Just a bit more!”
The rescuer puts the bag with the cat on the ground, speaks quietly to the animal. But the kitten meows again. As soon as its owner is on the ground, she rushes to her things and pats the cat on the head. Meanwhile, another bag with a black cat is being unloaded nearby. This one sits quietly in a checkered trunk and turns his head in all directions. Nearby, a rescuer drops off a yard dog.
“The cat was very quiet. And this dog was constantly trying to jump overboard and swim home. He was caught several times. Shit, where are you going?”, shouts the rescuer and rushes to catch the dog, which has just climbed into the water up to its nostrils and is trying to go home. “Owner! Where is the owner of the dog? Are there zoo volunteers here? Help!”, shouts the rescuer again, pulling the dog to the shore in turn.
“Me! I am the owner! This is my dog! And the cat is mine too! What is the catʼs name? Well, Cat, thatʼs it. Finally we are on land,” joyfully exclaims the man who just got out of the rescue boat. His pants are wet, his shirt is unbuttoned. The rescued man grabs the trunk with the cat in one hand, the dog in the other and moves up the street.
We choose a higher point to look around. It turns out to be a flower bed of a local gas station. To our left, on the same street, people are also being disembarked from the boat.
“A bag with documents! Donʼt let it go! Donʼt let it go! Documents!”, shouts an elderly woman to the rescuers.
They nod and smile, saying that everything is fine, the bag is here, no need to worry. The Sherp all-terrain vehicle of the State Emergency Service flies into the water at speed from the shore and moves towards the Island. We have a military man standing behind us — just in case. After the explosion, my colleague and I lie in the grass. A little further is a military man who was watching us. All of us seem to be fine. We wait for ten seconds. Itʼs quietly. Then military man jumps to his feet and runs a hundred meters to the nearest pit. We follow him.
“Shelling!”, shouts the square.
Artillery, Grads, sewage ditch
The square seems to be turning into chaos: people are running from everywhere. Cars parked along the streets are roaring their engines, trying to get out of the firing zone as quickly as possible. Several rescuers and I are lying behind a sparse bush on a small slope. We breathe hard, look at each other. We are trying to understand: is this a one-time arrival or will there be subsequent shells.
"Fucking Russians," says one of the rescuers. We silently agree.
Phones are buzzing.
“Yes. We are okay. We lie under a bush, down the street. We ran maybe a hundred meters,” says the rescuer on his mobile phone.
He covers his ears. The explosion is too close. We jump to our feet and run into the nearest street to look for a more reliable shelter. Ideally, a basement. No success. All yards are locked, people have left here. We are met only by a tightly closed gate.
Explosion. Whistle. I fall into the nearest bushes. Hear a dull croaking below me. Another explosion.
“Iʼm sorry,” I say quietly to the rescuer, on whom I fell a second ago. He is covered with burs from head to toe. The man is twice as tall as me, he is about fifty, his name is Dmytro. And this is not his first shelling — he served even before the big invasion in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“Everything is fine, you can not apologize. You did everything right. Letʼs stay here for a while, without moving,” says Dmytro.
Next to us, several more people in blue uniforms are pressed into the ground. All are fine. On the road, directly above our heads, military men are rushing in their cars. They stop a few hundred meters away under the trees, jump out of the cabin, and fall into the grass.
Small debris begins to fall on the roof of the house behind us. A moment of silence. Then a group of soldiers runs past us.
“Donʼt lie here! Move as far away from the square as possible! Now there will be more!”, one of the people in uniform tells us, raising his voice a little.
We follow the advice. After letting the soldiers go forward, we jump to our feet again and run along the fences. There are no pits around. After running about 300 meters, we see several rescuers on the other side of the road. They wave their hands. We run to them, in a small concrete hollow near the road. It doesnʼt protect very much, but itʼs better than lying in the middle of dry flowers in a flower bed.
“Yes. Everything is fine with our guys, all are intact, near the road. How many wounded? Three? Were they taken away? No? Did the ambulance pick them up? They did this on their own? Specify!”, Dmytro says into the receiver. Then for a few minutes thereʼs silence. It seems that only a few minutes have passed since the first explosion, but the watch on my wrist tells us that we have been under fire for half an hour.
We squeeze into the ground as much as possible. A few minutes of silence again. We light cigarettes.
“Well, congratulations with the first fire,” laughs Dmytro to the youngest rescuer, “That happens. In 2014, I served in the Donbas and was under fire. Itʼs okay, itʼs normal,” Dmytro says calmly.
A few more minutes pass. The ground beneath us begins to vibrate slightly, as if someone is hitting it with big hammers. The blows are coming closer and closer to us. "Grads," Dmytro says briefly. It seems that one more second — and the missiles will fall on our heads. Then roar suddenly stops. It is difficult to say how many explosions there were. Maybe twenty, maybe more. My heart is pounding. Our luck. They didnʼt hit us.
Explosion. Another. Sharper. Louder. After it is another, quieter one. This is ours shooting.
“Oh, and this is already a reply,” says Dmytro. We exhale. Then smoke again. In the end, Dmytro runs with one of the journalists to check the cars. We remain lying under the fence. We hear someone whistling. Itʼs a local in shorts and a red T-shirt.
“Bah!!! Aaand why are you lying here? Are you having a rest? Donʼt you want to go to the house? Maybe we can drink tea? No? Well, as you wish,” says the man and walks unsteadily further down the road. In the direction of Korabelna Square. Several explosions sound again. Itʼs ours. In search for Russian positions now.
"No, well, if I had been drinking like that since morning, I would also be very calm about the shelling," the rescuers laugh loudly.
There have been no missile hits for ten minutes. We squat and lean on the fence with our backs. A car with rescuers flies by. They say that the cars on the square are intact, the Russians did not hit them. On the other side of the road, a military man walks cautiously under the fences. At some point, he disappears behind the mound of the road. He sticks out for a short time, shouts that there is a better shelter. A large and deep, deeper than two meters, sewage pit. Without thinking for a long time, we run across the road and fall there one by one.
“How is it for you, journalists?,” laughs the soldier.
“I wasnʼt bored,” I say, “when youʼre under fire, itʼs calmer in the military dugout.”
“And thatʼs true. You can sit and drink coffee there. And here you itʼs even hard to find a place to hide. Well, itʼs okay, everything will be fine,” suddenly the military man becomes serious. Several explosions are heard again.
“Oh, this gonna last for the whole day. They will shoot at each other. There will be no work,” the rescuers sigh.
Our car stops on the road: the military helped to take it from the square. We jump inside and to the sounds of Ukrainian artillery leave the firing zone.
Water from a drone, note, filtration
Near the two museums looted by the Russians during the escape from Kherson — an art museum and a local history museum — there is another evacuation point. Today there are many people here: boats are moving in the water, evacuees are sitting at tables under the trees, they are offered lunch or just a drink. Some stayed without water for more than a day. A little lower, rescuers moored a boat with people. A woman of almost retirement age jumps overboard first and immediately throws herself on the neck of a man standing at the very edge of the water. She hugs him tightly, cries, wipes her tears with her hands. There are around a dozen photo and TV cameras, but she doesnʼt pay attention.
“Iʼm so glad, so glad to see you. At last,” she repeats. They hug for another minute and go under the trees.
Meanwhile, a white dog, similar to a very thin alabay, is unloaded from the boat. The animal is first carried in the arms, and as soon as it is on the ground, it is placed on its paws and carefully led to the zoo volunteers. All these are not ordinary passengers: the boat arrived from dachas, that is, from the islands on the Dnipro River, the gray zone. People spent more than half a year there.
“I was in the city during the occupation of Kherson. But when the Russians began to retreat, I was afraid that they would do something [to locals],” says the woman. “Thatʼs why I decided to go with my husband to our country house, to wait. As a result, we found ourselves under occupation again. We could not get out of there into the city. And just now, when the dam was blown up, we were taken out, — the woman says quietly. She does not tell their names. She says that her husband stayed “there”. “There” means under occupation.
“We have our animals left there, who are we going to leave them with? Someone has to feed them. We knew the rescue boat was coming. My husband and I consulted for a long time and decided that I would go first, and he would stay to watch the animals,” says the woman. “But I donʼt know, tomorrow they will try to take him out. The Russians do nothing. They donʼt care about people. The water has already reached the roofs, if this continues, there will be nowhere for us to escape. But neither they nor their Ministry of Emergency Situations showed up,” says the woman.
She will live at her friendsʼ place. She gets into a red Chevrolet Aveo with other evacuees and drives away. While we were talking, the military started a motorboat, sailed forward along the street, turned left and disappeared around the corner of the house. We ask where they are going.
"There, to work," the woman who meets the boats answers vaguely.
Her name is Alyona, she is from Korabel. She got out of there on the first day of the flood. Now she tries to help others.
“I woke up in the morning, watched the news and at first I thought it was some kind of fake. I think it was 7 in the morning. Well, it just didnʼt fit in my head: how they could blow up the dam?”, says Alyona. “And then the water started to arrive. I grabbed a survivorʼs backpack, everyone in Kherson probably has one, and went by car with my family. Where do I live now? In a friendʼs apartment. I have a whole bunch of keys, I go to water flowers for friends who have left the city. I took documents and money with me. Everything I need. The only thing I didnʼt have time to grab was clean underpants,” laughs Alyona.
An elderly man watches all this from the balcony of the third floor. The first floor of his house is flooded to about half the height, and the entrance door is jammed. So he smokes on the balcony and occasionally talks to the rescuers: “I have water! And food too! I will not go anywhere! Youʼd better tell me when the water will recede!”
“Later I managed to take out several families [from the flooded areas]. The neighbors laughed and said that I was panicking for nothing. And now they are calling and asking for evacuation too,” says Alyona. “But just try to get to Korabel: the currents are strong there, not everyone will make it. I have a friend there, she has several cats, dogs and nine puppies, which she managed to get out of the sewers. I also told her to leave by car. She didnʼt listen. Now she no longer has a car.”
A boat with soldiers who sailed “there” is moored to the shore. A short woman jumps into the water, holds two cats close to her: a black and an orange one. A boy and a girl are being carried behind her. The womanʼs name is Kateryna. The military took her out of Oleshky.
“Iʼve been sitting there for seven months. I was so happy to see the Ukrainian military. I almost kissed their hands,” she says. “They dropped us a bottle of water and a note that there would be an evacuation. We waited. We were waiting a lot... Now I want to see my mother. We havenʼt seen each other for seven months. This is the first time in my life for so long,” Kateryna says excitedly and fastly.
The water splashes quietly. A large truck approaches us, into which cages with rescued cats and dogs begin to be loaded. All animals are surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Kateryna goes on with her story.
“The Russians are not taking anyone away. They only said that it is possible to go somewhere on the territory of Russia. But I donʼt want to. Do not want! I want to go home. I want in Ukraine! I refused, constantly came up with some reasons to stay!”, says Kateryna.
A psychologist from the State Emergency Service approaches her, hugs her by the shoulders, and says something quietly to her. Small children are nearby. They donʼt even seem to have any things with them, but that doesnʼt matter. Soldiers stand a little further away, smiling into their thick beards. Suddenly, the boy moves away from his mother, approaches one of the men in uniform, and hugs him.
“Thank you, Santa,” says the little one.
“Oh, donʼt mention it. Do you know that you are famous? The whole world has already seen how we dumped water on you! You are famous all over the world!”, says the savior [actually he isnʼt Santa] enthusiastically. He takes out his phone and shows the boy a video from a drone of throwing bottles of water onto the roof in building in Oleshky. The boy laughs. In the meantime, the savior approaches Kateryna, explains that filtering measures are ahead of her, but she should not be afraid of that. If a person isnʼt a collaborator, everything will be fine.
While the adults are talking, the boy gives a press conference for journalists. He speaks very calmly and somehow too maturely.
“My name is Maksym, I am 12 years old. We lived in Oleshky. But not on the front line. The Russians were there, they placed mortars there and shelled Kherson,” says the boy, “we heard it very well. And they promised to take us to the basement. I donʼt know what would have happened if we werenʼt saved. I donʼt know why the Russians wanted to do that. They came to our house and threatened us. And my mother was threatened. Then the flood started and Santa poured water on us. There was a note that help would come. And we were evacuated. I am very happy about that,” says Maksym.
His black and orange cats are next to him, already in carriers. They are fed by animal volunteers. In the end, the family is called to go to the hiding place, where they can spend the night. The savior gives Maksym another present as parting — a packet of juice, water and a biscuit in the shape of a teddy bear.
“Hold on, little one. Everything will be fine,” he tells him in farewell.
The sun is slowly setting behind the houses. Explosions rumble over Kherson.
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.