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Much of Kherson is underwater — Ukraine's president says conditions are dire

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Ukrainian city of Kherson has faced a series of blows since Russia's invasion last year - includes the Russian military presence, constant shelling and now devastating flooding after a nearby dam was destroyed, leaving much of the city underwater. NPR's Greg Myre has a story from Ukraine.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: American aid worker David Tagliani has been coming to the aid of Ukrainians in danger since Russia invaded more than a year ago.

DAVID TAGLIANI: We do evacuations.

MYRE: Tagliani works with a Ukrainian group called Stay Safe that's been delivering supplies and performing rescues by land. Now they're doing it by boat in the swollen waters of the Dnipro River that have flooded Kherson.

TAGLIANI: The way that Kherson is made up, it's a bunch of islands in the middle of the Dnipro River, and all of those islands are now inundated. So anybody that had land or a home there is now homeless.

MYRE: Many are farmers stranded and isolated. Tagliani's group picks up more every day.

TAGLIANI: Something on the order of 20 people and probably 10 pets, from dogs and cats to, you know, chickens.

MYRE: The city was flooded Tuesday when a major dam was destroyed about 40 miles upriver. Ukraine and Russia are blaming each other, though the Russians were in control of the dam and they've been inflicting hardship on residents of Kherson since the beginning of the war. First, the Russians seized Kherson in the early days of the fighting last year and maintained strict control, with many residents saying they were detained or even tortured. Last November, Russia withdrew from the city in the face of advancing Ukrainian troops.

OLENA NIKOLOVA: Kherson is liberated, and we - we're just so happy. This was the happiest - one of the happiest days of our lives.

MYRE: Olena Nikolova is a journalist in Kherson. She and her family fled the city during the Russian occupation but returned soon after its liberation. However, joy in Kherson was short-lived. The Russians simply retreated to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River and began shelling Kherson almost daily. The bombardment has continued during the flooding. A rabbi was making this video about rescue efforts when a shell crashed nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RABBI: To bring people here from over the river, and the Russians - (non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED RABBI: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, visited Kherson on Thursday and said conditions were dire, citing the lack of drinking water in particular. Yet conditions are even worse on the east bank of the river, he said, adding that Russian forces had effectively abandoned civilians stuck in flooded homes. Some people are still in need of rescue on the Russian-controlled side, says Alexy (ph) Voronin. He runs the aid group Help People.

ALEXY VORONIN: They are sitting on the roof. There are kids. There are elderly people, and they are sitting and waiting because many of them don't know how to swim or too old for doing that.

MYRE: Voronin wants to get them to safety, but he has a couple problems. His small motorboats are not powerful enough to make it across the strong river currents. And there are reports of Russian snipers nearby. But Voronin has a plan which involves getting night vision goggles and a bigger boat in order to make the rescue attempt under cover of darkness.

VORONIN: We are preparing, yeah. We are preparing for this night.

MYRE: Meanwhile, Olena Nikolova says each successive blow against Kherson only strengthens the resolve of residents to stay and rebuild.

NIKOLOVA: This is our homes. They're our families, our dear ones. We just must work for victory. We cannot leave. This is our duty and work.

MYRE: Yet it's a struggle with no end in sight.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.