MYKOLAIV, Ukraine – There is no door on Anna Svetalaya’s fridge. A Russian missile blew it up the other day. When she came out covered in blood, a separate door saved her, shielding her chest from shrapnel.
Just before 7 a.m. in a residential area in Ukraine’s southern port city of Mykolaiv, 67-year-old Svetlaya realized her world was a pile of metal pieces, glass and rubble.
Her face was a mosaic of cuts and scratches, her gaze dignified, Svetlaya said: “The Russians do not like us. I wish we knew why!” A retired nurse, she surveyed her small apartment where her two sisters worked to restore order.
“It’s our ‘Russian brothers’ who do this,” said one, Larisa Krizanovska. “I don’t even hate them, I pity them.”
Since the start of the war, the Russian army has dodged Mykolaiv, who is dismayed by his failure to capture it and advance west towards Odessa. But the city’s resistance has hardened.
Almost besieged in the first weeks of fighting, it pushed back, becoming a linchpin of Ukrainian defiance on the Southern Front. But at regular intervals, with missiles and artillery, Russia reminds the 230,000 people still here that they are within the limits of the indiscriminate slaughter that characterizes Moscow’s prosecution of war.
One person was killed and 20 injured in a Russian attack on Friday, many of whom are still hospitalized. Mykolaiv is no longer in immediate danger of capture – a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south is troubling Russian forces – but the toll of the war is clear. Once a summer tourist destination, a town with a beautiful setting at the confluence of the Southern Buh and Ingul rivers, Mykolaiv is haunted.
Weeds grow on the sidewalks. The buildings are closed. Drinking water supply is short. More than half the population is gone; Those who survive are almost all unemployed. About 80% of the people here, many of whom are old, depend on food and clothing from aid organizations. Every now and then another blast electrifies the roaring air, sending people into despair when it doesn’t kill them.
Natalia Holovenko, 59, was waiting in line to register for help on her way out of a nearby village when she started crying. “We have no Nazis here!” That said, Ukraine needs to “de-nazify” in the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false justification for the war. “He just wants to kill us.”
The madness of this Russian project seemed etched in his begging eyes.
Without the Black Sea coast, a land-locked Ukraine would be a nation weak, having lost its ports, eight years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea. A grain-exporting nation, though now facing a Russian naval blockade, it would bolster its economy.
But as Russia moves mile by mile to the east in the Donbass region, it has been held back in the south. Since the capture of Kherson, about 40 miles east of Mykolaiv, at the start of the war, Russian forces have stalled or been pushed back. The Ukrainians, with their determination, have taken back the villages of the Kherson region.
“We will not give anyone the south, we will return everything that is ours and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe,” President Volodymyr Zelensky announced after visiting Mykolaiv and Odessa last week. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said on Tuesday that “our forces will certainly occupy these lands.”
Certainly, the mayor of Mykolaiv, Oleksandr Senkevich, is full of confidence. A man in green camouflage cargo pants, with a Glock pistol on his hip and an almost manic glow in his blue eyes, said, “The next step is to get the Russians out of Kherson and then drive them out of Ukraine.”
Before that can happen, however, Ukraine needs long-range artillery, he said. Drawing on a paper place mat in a cafe, he described how Russia could kill Mykolaiv, often with cluster weapons, from places Ukrainian artillery could not reach.
“Right now, it’s disappointing,” he said. “When we have what we need, we will be able to attack them without major damage.”
It will almost certainly take several months.
The mayor’s wife and two children left at the start of the war. He works round the clock. Water is a major issue. The Russians destroyed the pipes that brought fresh water from the Dnieper River. The water from the new borehole is insufficient, and the water from the southern buoy is bright.
“It’s a big problem,” he said. “But we are over-motivated, we know what we fight for, our children and grandchildren, and our land. They don’t know what they fight for and are therefore less motivated.”
He sees it as a war between cultures – in Russia, leaders say something “and the sheep follow,” he said, but in Ukraine, democracy has taken hold. In Putin’s Russia, what is said has the opposite meaning: “defense” means “attack” and “military target” means “civilian.” In Ukraine, Senkevich said, “we live in reality.”
That reality is tough. Anna Zamazieva, the head of the Mykolaiv Regional Council, escorted me to her former office, a building with a hole in the middle where a Russian cruise missile struck on March 29, killing dozens of her colleagues. The last minute delay in reaching work saved his life.
“That was a turning point for me,” she said. “Every day the husbands and children of those killed watched as bodies and debris were removed, and I could not persuade them to leave. It was then that I realized the utter cruelty and inhumanity that the Russians were capable of.”
She has returned to her father’s house alone. She sleeps in the room where she used to sleep in childhood. They estimate that the war will last at least a year. His days are spent trying to get food, water and clothing for thousands of people, many of them displaced from their homes in nearby towns and villages.
The battle, for him, is finally simple, captured on the olive-green shirt he is wearing. The same word appears across the map of Ukraine: “Home.”
“I am a free-minded person and if one does not recognize the freedom and self-expression of others, I cannot understand,” she said. “Our children are set free and I will protect them with my chest.”
Because it was a day of applause for health workers, Zamazieva attended a ceremony at a hospital. Vitaly Kim, the head of the regional military administration and a symbol of the city’s resistance, was also present. One of the women to be honored kissed her hand and said with a big smile, “Good morning. We’re from Ukraine!” The phrase, used by Kim in her video messages, has become a proud expression of MycoLive’s indomitable spirit.
In another hospital, 21-year-old Vlad Sorokin was lying in bed, his ribs broken, his lung punctured, his right hip and one knee broken. He is another victim of the missile attack that injured Svetlaya.
He said, ‘I am not angry. “I’m just asking why.” He was struggling to speak with his eyes closed. “The Russians have put themselves in a very bad position. They keep quiet and listen to what they are told from above and do not think for themselves – and so they think it is normal to attack others. ”