Floods in inundated Cherson wash up deadly land mines

In the floods of the destroyed Kachowka reservoir, people are struggling to survive. Russian troops complicate the evacuation with shelling. Igor Burdyga witnessed the first three days in the city of Cherson.

Morning of June 6th: The reservoir is running out

The world learns about the destruction of the hydroelectric power station at the Kachowka Dam. Built in the late 1950s, the structure has been controlled by Kremlin troops since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Kiev accuses the occupiers of having blown up the power plant during the night, Moscow raises the opposite accusation.

It seems clear that several explosions have torn large holes in the dam wall, which is up to 37 meters high. The level of the huge Kakhovka reservoir is falling rapidly, enormous masses of water inundate the surrounding areas on the lower reaches of the Dnipro River and flow towards the city of Kherson, 50 kilometers downstream.

Morning of June 7th: Stunned residents

Dozens of stunned Kherson residents stand under the memorial to the dead of World War II and watch as the Dnipro River washes giant poplars towards the Black Sea. Two barges, torn loose by the current, also drift by.

The granite steps leading up from the embankment to the monument have served as a venue for open-air concerts for decades. Now the bottom three heels are flooded and the water continues to rise.

The faces of the townspeople who survived eight months of Russian occupation and half a year of shelling at the front are completely at a loss and confused – they have never seen anything like this before.

Maksym, a man in his 40s, says a possible destruction of the dam has long been a topic of conversation in Kherson: “The last time there was a big panic was in 2000, when everyone was afraid of a computer failure due to the Y2K problem,” says Maksym. “There was much talk of a tsunami at the time, with engineers declaring that only the low-lying areas of Kherson would be flooded.”

Nothing of the sort happened. But now, says Maksym, he had had an employee of the local electricity supplier as a guest, whose house in the suburb of Komyschany had been flooded the day before.

“No, no, there was something like that,” corrects 78-year-old Maria Maksym. “I was five then, I think,” she says, beginning to tremble at the memory. Her son Ihor agrees to lead us through a narrow path between private houses closer to his mother’s house, the roof of which is now barely above the water. “Mom, you watered the tomatoes yesterday,” the man tries to joke. To reach his own house, the water would have to rise another 10-15 meters, so the family won’t leave it for the time being.

Meanwhile, three kilometers downstream, residents of Woronzowska Street have been trapped since morning: Overnight, the shoreline has shifted 500 meters inland from the port building, flooding several high-rise blocks up to the second floor and higher.

Afternoon of June 7th: Rescue workers and volunteers evacuate people and animals

Rescuers, police officers, military personnel, journalists and volunteers who have come to the city from all over the country are gathering on the “new shore” of Kherson. People have to be evacuated from high-rise buildings, they simply climb out of windows and roofs into inflatable boats. They are only allowed to take the essentials with them, especially money and documents. But some have not even been able to save that, they are only dressed in underwear.

Almost half of the volunteers and boats here are involved in animal rescues. After the recent news about the drowning of around 300 animals in the Nova Kakhovka zoo on the occupied left bank of the Dnipro, they do not want to leave the animals behind.

Morning of June 8th: An entire district under water

The water has risen a few meters again. The floods still do not reach the higher elevations on the right bank of the Dnipro. But the port district of Korabel, which is on an island, is almost completely flooded. The evacuation of the few residents who remained after six months of merciless artillery shelling began after the first reports of the destruction of the Kachowka dam. On the third day of the disaster, rescuers on boats are mainly still looking for animals between the houses.

The number of boats is increasing every hour. Actually, many people in Cherson live from shipbuilding. Before the war there were several shipyards, a few yacht clubs and almost every resident of the coastal areas owned a motor boat. But when the Russian army retreated to the left bank in November, they seized all available watercraft. Now boats from all over the south, maybe from all over Ukraine, have gathered here. A boat is like a permit: Anyone who brings a boat to help is allowed into the city even if the Ukrainian military has cordoned it off because of impending air and artillery attacks.

Midday of June 8th: A bridge from the water to the water

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy has arrived in Kherson. After meeting the rescuers and the military, he descends to the already flooded Korabelna Square. A bridge leads from here to the Korabel district, but it is now completely useless as the only way to get around the island is by boat anyway.

A few blocks north, a small inflatable boat with no motor lies abandoned in an empty alley. The three of us row around a private garden to a food kiosk, of which only a sign sticks out of the water. We don’t find people here or in the neighboring high-rise buildings.

Afternoon of June 8th: Reporters under fire

Shells are whistling overhead – Korabelna Square is being shelled from the left bank of the river. Why now? The Ukrainian President left the site more than an hour ago, evacuation operations are underway, rescuers, police officers, volunteers and journalists are the only remaining targets.

The three of us cling to the yellow wall of a half-flooded two-story building in our dinghy. A few cables prevent us from being swept away by the current. A grenade hits a house about 30 meters away from us, fortunately it is empty. When the shelling finally subsides, we row back to shore with a double effort. We later learn that nine people were injured by the shelling, including a volunteer from Germany.

Towards evening the tide reaches its highest point and the water slowly begins to drain away.

June 9 Spilled mines and artillery fire

The Russian shelling continues despite drastic statements from humanitarian organizations. According to satellite images and information from residents of the left bank of the Dnipro, the flooding has forced the Russian army inland. For artillery and multiple rocket launchers, however, the right bank is further within range. Civilian targets are being hit more and more often in Cherson. On this day, a bullet hits a school near the shore, another the roof of a nine-story building. Luckily there are no injuries.

Across the river, the Ukrainian military reached the town of Oleshky, which was almost completely flooded. Videos on social media show locals sitting on rooftops awaiting rescue. Several rescue groups reach Oleshky from Cherson with heavy boats – inflatable boats are simply washed away by the current.

Another problem: the floods have washed up land mines. After the first reports of boats exploding, the Ukrainian military is trying to limit rescue trips or at least to control the volunteer flotilla.

Local ecologists predict it will take time for the water to return to previous levels. Some flooded houses will have to be pumped out for some time. The local humanitarian center succinctly describes the city’s most urgent need for the coming months: “pumps and chemicals for water purification”.

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