It was from the attic, at the top of a three-storey house, that Katerina Krupich and her two children watched, with horror, the water released by the Kakhovka dam inexorably climb towards them. They had taken refuge there, without food or water, when their small island of Chaika, on the Dnieper, began to be submerged after the dam was destroyed by an explosion in southern Ukraine. But when most of the house was engulfed by the waves and they began to lose hope, they heard the roar of a drone overhead.
Katerina, 40, recalls that she immediately understood that it was a Ukrainian drone. She then called for help, leaning out the window and raising both hands in prayer. "I show them that there are three of us and that we have nothing left to eat or drink. Please help us," she said, in tears.
A message on a bottle
The drone made several round trips, delivering food and a message taped to a plastic bottle: "Hold on. Don't panic. You will be evacuated. Santa Claus." Katerina burst into tears as she read the word. "I decided to keep it, to remember what we went through," she said from the town of Kherson, where she was evacuated with her two children.
A message was taped to a plastic bottle: "Hold on. Don't panic. You will be evacuated. Santa Claus." AFP/ALEKSEY FILIPPOV. AFP or licensors
The family was rescued Wednesday night by a team of Ukrainian rescuers. The video of the mother calling for help, filmed by Ukrainian border guards, has gone viral on social media in the war-torn country.
The Krupichs lived under Russian occupation for more than a year. Only a dozen people remained on the tiny island of Chaika, near the Russian-occupied town of Olechky. "We've lived through all these months cut off from the world," she says. "We fished and ate the victuals that the neighbors let us take from their homes."
With Tuesday's explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, which Kiev and Moscow accuse each other, the island quickly began to be submerged. The ensuing floods affected both Ukrainian-controlled and Russian-occupied areas on both banks of the Dnieper.
The houses on the island were slowly disappearing
The water rose very quickly: "Ten centimeters every half hour, and another 10 cm, and another 10 cm." The water reached his ankles, then his knees. The houses of the island were slowly disappearing, the waves carrying garbage and debris in its path.
When it proved too dangerous to stay in their single-storey home, the family took refuge in a nearby three-storey house. At the very top, in the attic. "It was scary to see the water rising to the windows. Then it reached the roof, and the roof began to disappear in turn."
A guardian angel in camouflage
They were rescued when a 31-year-old Ukrainian border guard spotted them with his drone. The man who signed "Santa Claus" was handling a DJI Mavic 3, a commercial drone used for surveillance since the beginning of the war.
"Santa Claus" handled a DJI Mavic 3, a commercial drone. AFP/ALEKSEY FILIPPOV. AFP or licensors
Using his drone to drop food through a small roof window was a first, he says. "People call it a wedding drone," he says, adding that in peacetime, it is used to shoot high-quality videos.
"In wartime, we learned to use it a little differently. Replacing a grenade with a water bottle is not a problem, they have the same weight," he says, his face covered by a mask.
He said he needed to remain anonymous because of his activities in the field. He only revealed that he has a beard, hence his signature.
The guardian angel will remain anonymous. AFP/ALEKSEY FILIPPOV. AFP or licensors
For Katerina and her children, this Santa Claus in camouflage is their savior. "He is my guardian angel," she said. But the border guard assures that he has only done his job. "When you see a woman with two minor children, you make decisions immediately," says Santa Claus, smiling behind his mask.
78 communities still flooded
According to the latest assessment of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, five people have died and 27 are missing in areas under Ukrainian control because of this sudden rise in waters. The Russian occupation authorities reported at least eight deaths. Evacuations of local populations took place on both banks of the Dnieper, with each side accusing the other of continuing to shell the flooded areas.
According to Volodymyr Zelensky, 3000,5 people have been evacuated from areas under Ukrainian control. There are also 000,78 in the occupied territories, according to the Russians. According to the Ukrainian count, 14 localities are flooded, <> of which are in occupied territory.