The explosion that woke up Oksana Alfiorova, 57, seemed pretty normal, at least for Kherson during the Ukrainian War. She has lived through nine months of Russian occupation – “pretty scary” – and since then under constant bombardment from Moscow forces, who set up camp on the Dnieper River after they were driven out of the city.
But even for Kherson, Oksana noticed that things were far from normal on Tuesday morning (6). Water was filling the streets of her neighborhood. A dam had been destroyed, and soon the power went out, the gas stopped working and the water supply stopped.
So she did something she had resisted for a long time, despite all the hardships of the last year and a half: she ran away. She boarded an evacuation train from Kherson to Mikolaiv, some 65 km to the west, homeless for the first time in her life. “I had no choice.”
Many of her neighbors and friends decided to take a chance and stay. On the train destined to take people to safety there were 43 passengers, including several children. Most of the ten carriages were empty.
Oksana says many people she knew decided to move to higher ground to be with friends and family or to escape the flood in high-story apartments. “I have a neighbor on the third floor who has three dogs. She won’t leave the house.”
She herself lives on the fourth floor of the nine-story building, and the flooding was an added difficulty, albeit the latest grief in a city that was home to 290,000 people before the war.
Oksana, a sociologist, recalls the dark months of the occupation, when there was little money and food. Soldiers threatened civilians, searching for pro-Ukrainian people, looting homes and businesses and failing to provide even the most basic services.
The threat did not end after Ukrainian forces recaptured Kherson in November and the Russians began shelling the city from a distance. Oksana got used to it so much that she learned to measure danger by the sounds in the air. “If I hear a whistle, it might be a long way away. But when it’s a rumbling sound, you understand it’s going to land pretty close.”
In March, she says, a projectile exploded so close that she thought for a moment it was the end. But it survived. On Tuesday, when the explosions came again around 4am, she figured it was just Kherson’s usual alarm clock. Was not.
As the streets disappeared under the current, police cars began to patrol with loudspeakers to warn of the growing danger. Clear the area, they told the residents.
“I checked the Telegram channels, talked with neighbors and friends and decided to leave,” reports Oksana. She and her son, Oleh, 23, rushed to gather important documents, some belongings and their two cats, Biusia and Miusia, who she had placed in cardboard cages.
But when they tried to leave the neighborhood, the shelling started again, forcing them to take shelter in a basement. Only when it calmed down could they head to the train station. “Upon leaving, we realized that we forgot our money,” he says. But there were volunteers from various aid agencies at the station to help her.
She consulted with friends who were left behind and believes she made the only decision she could, no matter how difficult it was. “The water level is so high now that people can swim.”
Similar scenes have been described in Antonivka, some 65 km below the destroyed dam. A resident of the town, Hanna Zarudnia, 69, says she spent the night in a basement shelter because of the heavy shelling. “About ten houses were damaged.”
Then a new horror took shape. “Antonivka was surrounded by water on all sides, we were on an island”, he reports. “I have pictures, videos: roads, a stadium, a school, everything flooded.”
Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for blowing the dam, a critical structure whose breach has endangered thousands of people. Zarudnia scoffs at the idea that Ukraine blew up its own dam and recalls that similar allegations have been made about attacks in Kherson, where she lived under occupation.
“I was a witness to it.” She says she has no doubts about who was bombing her house week after week back then, nor who blew up the dam this week.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves