As the water rises from the broken dam, Ukrainians face a new horror

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — The early-morning explosion that woke Oksana Alfiorova from her sleep seemed normal enough, at least for wartime Kherson.

Alfiorova, who is 57, lived through nine months of Russian occupation, “truly terrible”, and since then almost as long under constant shelling by Russian troops, who set up camp across the Dnieper River after being driven out of the city. .

But even for Kherson, he soon realized Tuesday morning that things were far from normal.

Water flooded the streets of his low-lying neighborhood and rose quickly. The dam had collapsed, and soon the power went out, the gas stopped working, and the water supply to his apartment stopped.

So Alfiorova did something she had resisted for a long time, despite all the difficulties of the past year and a half: he ran away. He boarded an evacuation train from Kherson to Nikolaev, about 40 miles west, disembarking at platform 1, homeless for the first time in his life.

“I had no choice,” he said.

Many of his neighbors and friends, however, decided to take their chances and stay, and the train, which was meant to take people to safety, had only 43 passengers, including several children. Most of the 10 cars were empty.

Alfiorova said many people she knew had decided to move to higher ground to stay with friends and family or to escape flooding in high-rise apartments.

“I have a neighbor on the third floor who has three dogs,” she said. “He is not going to leave his house.”

He himself lives on the fourth floor of a nine-story building, and for him the flooding was very difficult, although it is the latest grief for a city that was home to 290,000 people before the Russian invasion last year.

Sociologist Alfiorova remembers the dark months of the Russian occupation, when she had little money and food. Soldiers threatened civilians, hunting down pro-Ukrainian sympathizers, looting homes and businesses, and failing to provide even the most basic services to people.

The threat did not disappear entirely after Ukrainian forces recaptured Kherson in November and the Russians began shelling the city from afar. Alfiorova got so used to it that she learned to measure the danger by the sounds of the air.

“If I hear a whistle, it could be pretty far away,” he said. “If it whistles, I know it’s not for my soul. But when it’s a rumble, you know it’s pretty close to falling.”

In March, he said, a shell exploded so close that he momentarily thought it might be the end. But he survived.

On Tuesday, when explosions thundered again around 4 a.m., he realized it was the usual Kherson wake-up call. It was not. “The neighbors were screaming,” he said.

As the streets disappeared beneath the flood, police cars began patrolling with loudspeakers to warn of the growing danger. Residents were urged to evacuate.

“I checked Telegram channels, talked to neighbors and friends and decided to go,” Alfiorova said. She and her son Oleh, 23, ran to collect important documents, a few valuables and her two cats, Biusia and Miusia, which she put in cardboard pet carriers.

But when they tried to leave their quarters, the shelling resumed, forcing them to take cover in the basement. Only when it descended could they make their way to the train station.

“When we were leaving, we realized we forgot all our money,” Alfiorova said. But there were teams of volunteers from many aid agencies at the train station to help him.

He checked with friends who stayed behind and believes he made the only decision he could, as difficult as it was. “The water level is now high enough for people to swim,” he said.

Similar scenes were reported at Antonivka, about 40 miles downstream from the destroyed dam.

One of the city’s residents, Hanna Zarudnia, 69, said she spent the night in a basement bunker because of the intense shelling. “About 10 houses were damaged,” he said. “The roofs have collapsed.”

Then a new horror was formed.

“Antonivka was surrounded by water on all sides, we were on an island,” he said. “I have pictures, videos: the roads, the stadium, the school were flooded, everything was under water.”

Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of blowing up the dam, a critical structure whose breach has put thousands of people downstream at risk.

Zarudnia scoffed at the idea that Ukraine blew up its own dam and recalled similar claims about attacks in Kherson, where he once lived under occupation. “I was a witness to it,” he said.

He has no doubts about who was bombing his house week after week then, he said, and no one about who blew up the dam now.

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