In another life, before the Russian invasion, the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine would have caused a massive evacuation of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. But the villages that have been flooded in the final 60 kilometers of the Dnieper River, before flowing into the Black Sea, have long been practically deserted. Kherson is a ghost town where death lurks in every street. Now, in addition to the holes and ruins left by artillery, there are neighborhoods submerged underwater and neighbors who have lost what little they had left.
The Ukrainian government estimates that on the two banks, along 60 kilometers of overflowing river, more than 40,000 people live in flooded areas and must be moved. On the Ukrainian side, Kiev has reported the evacuation of nearly 2,000 residents; in Russian-occupied areas the figure rises to 4,000, according to Russian media. These data confirm that the Dnieper, in this area, is unpopulated because it has been a front line for months.
A boat sails down a flooded avenue in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. Roman Hrytsyna (AP)
Two neighbors speak to a group of soldiers outside a block of flats in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. Felipe Dana (AP)
Flooded Houses is a residential area in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. STRINGER (REUTERS)
A Kherson resident swims next to a house in a flooded area of the Ukrainian city on Wednesday. OLEXANDER KORNYAKOV (AFP)
Flooded streets in the city of Kherson, this Wednesday. Libkos (AP)
An elderly woman cries after being evacuated in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. Roman Hrytsyna (AP)
Aerial view of the city of Kherson, whose houses have been partially flooded, on Wednesday. Libkos (AP)
A neighbor walks through the courtyard of his flooded home in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region on Wednesday. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)
A flora slipper in a residential area in the city of Nova Kajhovka, in the Kherson region, on Wednesday. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)
A man uses a paddle board to move down a flooded street in Kherson. Roman Hrytsyna (AP)
Several people watch the Dnieper River as it passes through Kherson on Tuesday. STRINGER (REUTERS)
A man evacuates a cow on Tuesday in Kherson. Global Images Ukraine (Global Images Ukraine via Getty)
The House of Culture of Kherson flooded, this Tuesday. TASS (via REUTERS)
The Nova Kakhovka dam, collapsed, on Tuesday. TASS (via REUTERS)
A woman holds her pets in her flooded home in Kherson.Evgeniy Maloletka (AP)
Aerial view of a flooded Kherson street, after the collapse of the dam. Global Images Ukraine (Global Images Ukraine via Getty)
Two people try to cycle across a flooded street in Kherson on Tuesday. Associated Press/LaPresse
Water runs through the large gap in the Nova Kakhovka dam on Tuesday. AP
A man watches the water run sitting on a bench on the outskirts of Kherson, partially flooded after the dam burst. SERGIY DOLLAR (AFP)
Satellite image of the Nova Kakhovka dam on Tuesday. AP
Evacuation at a train station in Kherson province on Tuesday due to the collapse of the dam. Nina Lyashonok (AP)
Images of the damage at the Nova Kakhovka dam, located in southeastern Ukraine, on Tuesday. Reuters
The soldier stationed there turns a blind eye to the few citizens who approach the water on Ushakovka Avenue, the main street of the city. Formally it is forbidden for them to be there: just over 5 kilometers away are the new Russian positions. People did not dare to stand there before Tuesday, still and watching, because the enemy was then one kilometer away, within sniper range. The overflow of the river, after the collapse of the dam early Tuesday, has widened its channel and flooded the floodplains where the first line of Russian fire was located. On Ushakovka Avenue, water had entered about 200 meters into the city. In other neighborhoods, the flooding was much worse.
Curious people wandered along flooded urban areas to take photographs, as souvenirs or to send relatives and friends who left the city long ago. "People are confident and approaching because today they have not shot at us with artillery, they are too busy with what they themselves have done," said the soldier stationed at the end of Ushakokka Avenue on Wednesday. For 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's troops.
Volunteers offered help to neighbors trapped in a building in Kherson on Wednesday. ABOUTMICHAEL (Getty)
Ukrainian artillery shells did sound every few minutes, with howitzers positioned in the city. A senior Army officer explained to this newspaper, on condition of anonymity, that one of the reasons why Russian fire is punishing Kherson so much is because Ukrainian artillery is constantly moving within the municipality. "Humanitarian aid doesn't 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 — including the Russians — the population that insists on continuing to live at ground zero of the conflict is a problem because it hinders military operations.
Vita received bags of bread and fruit from volunteers that she would distribute with eight other neighbors. Because the truth is that in the municipality, among the few vehicles circulating on Wednesday, many were SUVs and vans of aid and civil relief organizations that moved to the area after the floods.
But not only the civilian population is a nuisance for the military authorities, so are the media. For the press, accessing flooded river areas is an odyssey. The Ukrainian army has this year established 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 "you do not want to double the population of the city."
The military authorities do not want observers of 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 in which soldiers from different units called on the population to silence and not share information that could harm the counteroffensive caused a furor on Ukrainian social networks. From the Ministry of Defense it has been stressed that both the media and war analysts should not provide data other than the official ones.
A neighbor receives food in Kherson on Wednesday. ALINA SMUTKO (REUTERS)
EL PAÍS tried to access the municipalities adjacent to the Nova Kakhovka dam, but military controls prevented it, with its commanding officers claiming strict orders not to allow the passage of the press. This military strategy contrasts with what Lena Kotok, a neighbor of Kherson, asked journalists: "Please inform the world of what we are suffering, of the evil that Russia is committing." "Not even Ukrainians believe what it's like to live here," added his sister Lera. The two went to visit the apartment of Lera's daughter, who fled Kherson in spring 2022, when Russian troops occupied the city, on Wednesday afternoon. The apartment is in a building where water affected the first floor. Lera cried because they had lost the most precious possession for them, the dacha, the summer house that her grandparents built on an island near the Dnieper Delta.
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More lucky was the apartment of Yuri and Tania's daughter, who also fled Kherson in 2022, to settle in Ireland. The water only grazed the house and left without electricity, but the next building, an old two-storey block, collapsed under the pressure of the water. The couple visits the apartment every few hours and calls their daughter by videoconference to show her that everything is going more or less well.
The life of the Perehorihatenko family has turned upside down this week, yet another. Their home has been underwater and they have moved to live in the house of relatives. Sasha, his wife Ana and their son Ilia went together to visit the painting and plating workshop where the father works, also washed away. "As long as the Russians remain here, the problems will continue, but we will resist, as we resisted the occupation and now the bombings," says Ana.
A resident of the town of Korsunka (Kherson province) protected himself on Wednesday from the rise in the water level. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)
100 kilometers from Kherson, following the river to the northeast, Svetlana Denisuk was calculating how many days she could have left of water for her two hectares of strawberry fields. His business depends on water from the Kakhovka reservoir, but the authorities have already warned him that he may not have been supplied in two weeks. "What to do? Nothing, all this will die, there is nothing to do," Denisuk 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 Kherson province, 74% of Zaporizhia and 30% of Dnipropetrovsk province have run out of water.
His life won't get as bad as an outside observer might believe, Denisuk says: last year, his camps were battlegrounds and he couldn't take advantage of them either. At least they are cleared, he adds. He prefers not to think about the future, he admits, while insisting on giving journalists a box of his strawberries: "Tell what happens here."
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