The floods are temporary but the damage is permanent. Kherson after the dam-burst.

21 June 2023 By Paul Martin

Shelling or rocket-fire has been a daily feature of life in Kherson since the Russians pulled back across the river in late November, comprising the first and only retreat the invaders have made in this war from a city they had occupied. A 12-year-old boy — like many in Kherson — has become an expert in warfare weaponry.  “It makes me sad,” his father tells Correspondent.World. “He can lie in bed and say: ‘Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing’ as he hears the weapons and identifies them.”

We swerve speedily around a large sign indicating Kherson Port.  It’s close to the swollen Dniepr River, whose dam wall collapsed, almost certainly blasted by prepositioned Russian explosives, on June 6.  Ironically, shelling and rocket-fire from the other side of the river has become  less frequent since the Dniepr overflowed — the waters also flooded Russian gun and artillery emplacements and sent many of the invaders scurrying up buildings and trees or beating hasty retreats to higher ground.  However, rockets and longer-range missiles can and do still exact a toll from further afield. And incoming rockets are now a daily reality again.

 As the water-levels rose, teams that were organising the evacuation families had difficult at first in persuading them to abandon their homes. After their initial deep reluctance, they realised that danger was imminent and that rescuing precious possessions was subordinate to the risks to life.

When the torrent flowed downriver and into the Black Sea the waters, mercifully, receded.  An ecological and agricultural disaster is still expected, but last weekend we could reach most of the previously flooded areas in Kherson itself on foot. We have donned large black bin-liners over our shoes and trousers to traverse muddy roads and enter empty houses, their contents devastated.

I am shown a video of Krasnalflotskaya Street, during the height of the flooding.  Only roofs of bungalows poke out from the water, and the real, original river route can be seen in the far distance.  There are patches of mud but also some dry ground.  

Seen during the height of the flooding, the roof of the house we visited, Number 50 (above), has the same pattern of bricks as the house we filmed (below)

A man in a black T-shirt kindly wraps our legs in black plastic rubbish-bin sacks, while showing us, on his mobile phone, the video he had taken by boat during the flood. He leads us into House 50, next door to his own home.

 Inside, it’s clear the waters have gone up to the ceiling, which in one room has collapsed, laying bare the wooden floor-boards of the attic above.  For his Facebook page tour guide records his thoughts as he sloshes around: “I am going to cry. There’s nothing left. The water was up till the roof…  So so sad.”  

For me, it’s equally poignant to see what has not been destroyed or swept away.  Circular flower tiles remain stuck firmly around her front door.  Some small pots and pans hang from hooks on her kitchen wall.  The painted walls inside the house remain colourful: blue and pink. The kitchen clock has stopped ticking at 5 minutes to 8. A large white fridge lying on its side still has fridge-magnets attached.

“The young lady who lived here with her parents got married a few years ago,” says the guide.  She and her husband left Ukraine, but the parents had remained.  They had found the stresses of war too much and had crossed the river by car for relative safety — unfortunately, just days before the Russian forces themselves withdrew suddenly late last November.  

The parents remain trapped on the other side.  They are safe but miserable, says their daughter Alina, 39, when Correspondent.World tracked her down.  “I think about the home that meant so much to me.   I have been sent photos of its inside and outside.  I cry,” says Alina.

“What saddens me more is that I have not seen my parents for two years, as they were, and still are, in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. I cannot go there with my 4-year-old son; it’s too dangerous, and my dad cannot travel because of a serious heart condition.”

Also painful for her is the disappearance of the family pet, Lubka (‘Paws’), a beloved female dog they acquired as a puppy seven years ago. Since last November, when her parents left, Alina had arranged for her neighbour to feed the dog every day, but he has no idea where Lubka is – or if she’s alive or dead.  “We’ve been contracting all the pet sanctuaries in Kherson – no joy yet.”  

I’m not sure whether to tell her that Lubka’s wooden dog-kennel is now visible on top of the neighbouring house’s shed — it had obviously floated up there in the rising waters.

The missing dog Lubka (Paws), and its owner (below)
Alina, 39, sent us this undated photo of her.

Across the road, a woman in her thirties points to her home — which she explains had twice been hit by incoming rockets and which was largely destroyed. “So the flood, I am pleased to say, had no effect; it was already a wreck.”  She is camping out next door.

One local man, Peter, tells me how it feels to have remained in Kherson throughout the war.  “It’s like a game of Battleship  You don’t know where and when the killer blow is about to fall, or whether will you wake up next morning.” Despite this apparent feeling of helplessness, he refuses to move.

Other locals tell me snippets of their wartime stories.

A 48-year-old tries to put a positive spin on what others would say was a shocking event.  He was at the river during recent Russian shelling to get water, which was in extremely short supply.  He looked around and saw a former schoolmate.  They exchanged waves, and a shell just then smashed into his friend, killing him. “At least his last bit of life was to smile and wave,” he recalls.

Another man describes how he was on his balcony, again  during recent months, when he saw a rocket heading straight at him.  He just stood there, transfixed.  The rocket struck the apartment one floor above him and adjacent, killing a woman inside.

Returning to his home, a guide points out yellow piping for a communal gas supply.  There is a hole in the ground — made by a shell or rocket.  It had failed to explode, otherwise the gas could have burst into flames and killed many who lived or walked nearby.

Alongside us at lunch were Alona and her husband Vitaly, a very special couple who were living at the rabbi’s house.   Alona is a school-teacher but only 3 of her original 33 pupils are still in the city.  She teaches a total of 20 children now by the ubiquitous Ukrainian war-time technology: via the Internet. 

That is just one aspect of this awful war that bodes ill for the future.