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Three days after the destruction of a major dam on the Dnieper River, the humanitarian response in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region gathered momentum on Friday, despite Russian shelling from across the waters during evacuation efforts.
Aid organizations large and small, as well as many individuals in their own vehicles, have converged on the disaster area with emergency supplies from Ukrainian government-controlled parts of the country. People used rubber boats to rescue residents trapped in their homes on the riverbanks and in villages across the region, as well as many pets paddling in search of dry land.
An estimated 2,000 people have so far been evacuated since the collapse of the Kakhovka dam on Tuesday. Ukrainian and Russian authorities accuse each other of triggering the collapse, which affected land controlled by both sides, and according to Ukraine, affected an area of around 230 sq miles (600 km sq).
“We worked and built everything we had, and then it was gone in a moment.”
“People are giving their everything to save every person, every animal,” said Maxim, who drove a van with donated clothing, bedding, food and water and medicine three hours from Odesa. “There’s so much humanity on one side [of the river] and inhumanity on the other.”
As often happens in times of crisis, people who stepped up this week with one plan of action found themselves working in a totally unrelated capacity. The founder of NGO SaveUAmedia, Sergei Panashchuk, came to Kherson to report the story of the unfolding disaster – and became part of it himself. He received an unexpected donation of funds to buy cages to evacuate rescued dogs, and when he tweeted about it, it produced more donations from abroad to save more pets.
“I fed stray cats before the war,” he said. “But I never expected to deliver cages for dogs while being shelled, literally risking my life.”
The situation became more acute due to shelling of the city hours after a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday. Authorities in Kyiv said nine people were injured in the attack.
“People were running scared to the nearest bomb shelter,” said Panashchuk, who was in the city center when the shelling began. “All people in the bomb shelter were breathing heavily and prayed.”
The attack did not deter aid workers and volunteers from carrying on later. Sporadic shelling outside the city continued also on Friday, as did the aid effort.
Direct Relief staff accompanying vans full of supplies observed palls of smoke over the area as detonations ignited grassland and crops. The convoy to the village of Antonivka, five miles upstream from Kherson – the second delivery since Thursday – had to take cover in a dip in the road until the shooting abated.
Using the only serviceable road into the village from the west, British NGO MAD Foundation, working in close cooperation with Direct Relief’s partner in Odesa, Hospitable Hut, delivered a total of nine van loads of assorted supplies, including medicines.
“This is the first aid we received since the flood,” said Svitlana, the medical nurse running the small local clinic which now also serves as a sorting point for any supplies that can be sourced.
Like many parts of the Kherson region, there has been no electricity, gas or constant water supply here since the Russians withdrew last November. But with the river water and local wells now tainted beyond purification by oil and other spillages, the community is now dependent on bottled water. “I am now afraid that an epidemic will start,” said the nurse.
Barely forty paces away, the floodwaters lap at submerged houses and the community’s Finnish-built, modern – and now waterlogged – school, once the pride of the community: “When the Russians came, they simply couldn’t believe that our little village had such a modern, well-equipped school,” said resident Nataliia.
The remaining 1,000 people of 5,000 who used to live in Antonivka are in a state of shock at the events of recent days, especially after the months of occupation and then regular shelling that preceded them. Although the water level receded slightly since Tuesday, the emotional pain of this latest cataclysm is plain to see.
“We worked and built everything we had, and then it was gone in a moment,” said Ivan, 74, who nevertheless refuses to leave and join his daughter in Poland. “I was born here, christened here, and I shall remain here.”
Nataliia also echoed the spirit of defiance in Antonivka: “We will get through this, just to spite them,” she said, motioning to the Russian held-eastern bank of the river. “We’ll be like a bone stuck in their throat.”
“Miracles happen when you work with the right people.”
But as well as supplies, people in the entire region are in desperate need of moral and psychological support. A team of emergency psychologists working with Direct Relief’s partner organization Hromada Hub immediately headed for the affected area when the news broke of the dam collapse.
“Overall, we assisted people affected by the flood from the first hours,” said Hromada Hub’s emergency psychology coordinator Melinda Endrefy. “Twenty-four visits were done in three days. A team of 14 psychologists worked with us during the disaster. Miracles happen when you work with the right people.”
Because of the long-term need for such assistance, Hromada Hub’s training program aims for sustainability: “I usually empower [local] leaders as emergency psychology coordinators and make sure they can continue their work despite traumatic events,” said Endrefy.