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‘We Rescue People and Animals, and We get Them to Safety’: Saving Lives in Kherson Under Russian fire

Thousands of people have been evacuated, but much more are abandoned on Russia-occupied territories

Saving lives in Kherson under Russian fire. Photo: Ivan Shmatko

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“We’re here, and we’ll stay and do what needs to be done,” says Ivan Shmatko. A Kyiv resident, he arrived in Kherson a day ago to help locals however he could.

“Everything changes really fast, so what was needed an hour ago may not be necessary anymore,” he adds, “So it’s important to coordinate everything and update the necessities.”

The man came to Kherson on the next day after the catastrophe. He was a call on Facebook by a well-known Ukrainian journalist, Bohdan Logvynenko, who urged people to send help to the affected areas as well as drive there if they could. 

“So I reached out, and soon, we were all in a big chat of volunteers coordinating their arrival to Kherson,” Ivan explains.

He drove to the affected area with a group of roughly 20 more cars. More keep coming and going regularly, delivering more aid, and transporting animals and people to safer parts of Ukraine.

“It is an informal network of volunteers,” Ivan says, “We all showed up because we wanted to help, so it was just this big group of people who decided to do something. It’s very horizontal and independent, so people spread out across Kherson to help with what is needed in a specific area where they are in.”

In less than two days, the group delivered more than 10 tons of humanitarian aid and around 60 thousand Euros to locals. This is one of the many efforts carried out by ordinary Ukrainians helping on the spot.

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Bad and Getting Worse

It’s been three days since the explosion at the Kakhovka dam, controlled by Russia. The huge stream of water from the reservoir affected large parts of Southern Ukraine with the biggest hit of the Kherson region. The latter has been under Russian occupation since 2022, but Ukraine managed to liberate parts of it in November.

Ukraine controls Kherson, the region’s capital, and small villages around it – they are located on the West bank of Ukraine’s biggest river, Dnipro. While these areas are badly affected, they are still better than the villages in the left bank of Dnipro, controlled by Russia. These are lower, so water reached them faster, and many villages are completely under water by now.

In addition, while there are mass evacuations in Ukraine-controlled areas, Russians are not evacuating people in the areas they occupy. Locals are stuck on the rooftops of their houses, and some risk their lives to get to Ukraine-controlled areas to receive some help. All this is done under regular shooting from the Russian army.

Locals in Russia-controlled areas reported that Russians evacuated themselves from the affected territories, but they forbade Ukrainians from doing so – and open fire on evacuees on both sides.

Saving lives in Kherson under Russian fire. Photo courtesy of Ivan Shmatko
Photo: Ivan Shmatko

In Ukraine-controlled territories, the situation is difficult, too. In some areas, the water keeps on coming although it stabilized a bit. On June 7, the water level increased by 5.34 m in some areas, and the experts are expecting more water to come.

In Kherson, with its 300,000 residents, four districts went under water. In some areas, the water reached a third floor in high-rise buildings. In these areas, it is possible to move only on a boat. More than two thousand people have already been evacuated from these districts, and some more are expecting evacuation from the city and nearby villages.

However, some choose to stay until the water goes down. This is, the experts warn, will be the toughest period when humanitarian aid will be needed even more – and when Ukrainians will need to start assessing the damage and rebuilding what can be rebuilt.

Volunteers Shelled by Russian Forces

“There are many volunteers on location, and there are state rescuers and the military,” Ivan explains, “They are trying to coordinate their efforts, but it is hard because things evolve so quickly, and it gets a bit chaotic.”

Many volunteers keep on arriving, bringing boats and other crucial aid – some areas badly need transportation. President Zelesnkyi came to Kherson, too, to check on the evacuations and express his support for the local people. 

“I am close to the area that went underwater,” Ivan says, “I remain here for now to coordinate work between the police, the volunteers, and the evacuees. People are immediately met after the evacuation; their state of is checked, and they can get medicines, and blankets, and are transported to safe places. My responsibilities now are to communicate with others when we need a car or to find transportation to get animals to safety, and so on.”

“Shooting continues,” the man adds, “We hear it from the Russian side from time to time, but luckily, it did not reach where I am standing. Otherwise, I would not be able to talk to you and do my work.”

A district badly affected by the water became a target of Russian attacks at midday on Thursday. Three people were wounded, including one rescuer. The volunteers and state services had to stop evacuations due to Russian fire. 

Ivan doesn’t know how many people from the Russia-controlled areas could escape. He says that some managed to flee, but it’s hard to tell given Russia’s control and shooting of the area. 

Ukrainian military sent drones to deliver water and record those in Russia-occupied territories asking for help. Many remain on the roofs of their houses.

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Not Leaving Anyone Behind

Animals are badly affected – there are wild animals trying to get to dry areas as well as farm animals and pets that people are rescuing.

“We have our teams of volunteers saving animals from drowning,” says Olha Chevhanik, a cooperation director of UAnimals, one of the Ukraine’s largest animal rights movements. 

“We bought metal boats because the other ones are not good enough to transport animals,” Olha continues, “And after we transport pets to safety, we deliver them to our medics on the ground.”

The volunteers brought their own veterinarian car which checks the conditions of the rescued animals, and then, helps to transport them across Ukraine for adoption or for temporary shelter in different parts of the country. Many shelters are cooperating on this.

“We also give away free animal food, and we informed locals in Kherson where to get it,” Olha concludes, “So people come and feed their animals as well as put the food in many areas across the city.”

The experts predict that most of the wildlife in the affected areas will not survive the flood – so most fish and mammals will die in a matter of days, unable to get to safety of dried land. 

There are also first reports of the people dying after the explosion – at least nine are reported killed in the Russia-controlled areas.

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