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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘I’m not scared of anything’: Death and defiance in a besieged Ukrainian city

A Ukrainian soldier at a front-line position outside Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 6, 2022.

By Michael Schwirtz

Alla Ryabko stood in the courtyard of the city morgue, trembling with grief and rage. Her son, Capt. Roman Ryabko, had been killed in fighting on the first day of the war in Ukraine, but two weeks had passed, and his body had not yet been prepared for burial.

“He’s there lying in a bag,” she said, gesturing to the covered bodies on the ground. “They’re not even giving him to me so that I can wash him. I have to take him away in a bag, a garbage bag.”

The morgue is overflowing. Bodies are being released to families in the state they arrived. Bodies are in the corridor, in the administrative offices, in the courtyard, in a storage shed nearby. They are soldiers and civilians.

Even as Ryabko cried out her anguish, artillery strikes shook the ground beneath her feet. There were already 132 bodies in the morgue that day.

There is shelling every day in Mykolaiv.

Russian forces want to take Mykolaiv because it stands in their way. The Varvarivsky Bridge in the city is the only passage for miles across the wide mouth of the Southern Buh River. By seizing the bridge, Russian fighters can push along the Black Sea coast west to Odesa, the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy and the country’s largest civilian port.

To get to the bridge, they have to go through the Ukrainian fighters who, so far, have not budged. And so the Russian troops bomb, randomly and indiscriminately, striking neighborhoods, hospitals and supermarkets, opting for terror in the absence of military gain. At least a dozen civilians were killed by airstrikes over the weekend, according to local authorities.

Yet there is also a refusal to succumb. Trash is still being collected. There is the family who closed down a high-end interior design business and now drives around the city delivering food to needy residents. A group of local guys banded together to try to fix a Russian tank damaged in the fighting so that Ukraine’s military might use it.

A few blocks from the morgue, the Coffee Go cafe is doing a brisk business, even as artillery fire rattles the plate-glass windows. When the owners tried to close down, their teenage employees rebelled, said Viktoria Kuplevskaya, an 18-year-old barista with a streak of orange in her hair.

“We wanted to work,” she said. “I’m not scared of anything.”

Once a center of shipbuilding for the Russian Empire, Mykolaiv was among the first places attacked after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Feb. 24. The Russian troops have pressed deep into the city limits, only to be pushed out, leaving behind the burned-out carcasses of armored vehicles.

No one knows how long Ukrainian defenders can hold. Russian forces have attacked with tanks, artillery and fighter jets, pummeling the city on three sides. Every day brings more death. But also defiance.

The governor

“Good morning. We’re from Ukraine.”

So begins the typical morning video message from Vitaliy Kim, the regional governor. His upbeat videos on Facebook and Telegram, which he invariably opens by flashing a peace sign and toothy smile, typically garner 500,000 views, roughly equal to the city’s population.

“When he smiles, we can go to bed,” said Natalya Stanislavchuk, who has been volunteering to deliver food to the needy. “If Kim says we can sleep calmly, then we can sleep calmly.”

Kim posts videos throughout the day, a mix of reassurance and withering denigration of Russian forces. The messages are meant to bolster the spirits of city residents, even if the booms they are hearing sound terrifyingly close.

“What can I say — the 17th day of war, all is well, the mood is excellent,” Kim said in a message over the weekend that began with news of an airstrike on a residential neighborhood. “We have freedom, and we’re fighting for it. And all they have is slavery. We want all of our dreams to come true, and we’re moving in that direction. Together to victory.”

The targets

The fireball lit up the night sky like an early sunrise. Another day of Russian shelling had begun.

It was Monday, March 7, and Russian forces had launched an early morning attack that jolted residents from their beds.

A cruise missile had hit a barracks filled with sleeping soldiers from the 79th Ukrainian Air Assault Brigade. Eight were killed and another eight were missing, their bodies buried in the pile of rubble.

In one neighborhood of densely packed apartment blocks, residents alternated between clearing out their shattered homes and dashing to basement bomb shelters amid continuing strikes.

The missile strikes had blown out windows and sprayed shrapnel through furniture, walls and appliances.

“Look at how the Russian world is saving us,” said Marina Babenko, a mother of two, referring sarcastically to Putin’s claim that Russia was waging a war of liberation. “We were living fine and had everything we needed. Now they’re bombing residential neighborhoods, women and children.”

The defiant

Two older women were sitting on a bench in a city park, watching three young children play, when their conversation was interrupted by an ominous droning sound: an air raid siren. The women kept talking. After a few minutes, they slowly rose, bundled the youngest child into a stroller and walked away in no great hurry.

Russian rocket attacks may now set the rhythm of life in Mykolaiv, but many residents are determined to play the song in a key of their own choosing.

There has been an exodus from Mykolaiv during the past two weeks. On some mornings, large convoys of cars and buses have snarled traffic at the Varvarivsky Bridge.

The bridge is the escape route. It is also a prize that Russian forces covet.

But should they enter the city, in addition to Ukrainian military forces, the Russian troops will have to face people like Dmitry Dmitriev, a local journalist who has put down his pen in favor of a submachine gun. On a recent visit to the offices of his online news outlet, there were more guns than journalists, and boxes of ammunition littered the floor.

“All of us are participating in the resistance,” Dmitriev said.

The wounded

At City Hospital No. 3, Anna Smetana sat up in a cot, sobbing. A 40-year-old mother, she was wearing a peach dress with black polka dots, her shoulder and leg covered by large bandages soaked through with blood.

Two days earlier, Smetana and six of her colleagues from a local orphanage were driving to a small village where the children had been evacuated at the start of the war. About 15 miles outside of the city, she said, an armored Russian fighting vehicle opened fire on the van.

Three of Smetana’s colleagues were incinerated by the fire that engulfed the van, she said. Smetana was shot twice in the shoulder and once in the leg.

On just one day, Smetana was one of 25 patients being treated for wounds from shelling and gunfire, according to the hospital’s medical director, Dmitri Kolosov.

“We thought coronavirus was a nightmare,” Kolosov said. “But this is hell.”

The defenders

Black strafe marks pock a prop plane that sits on the runway of Mykolaiv’s small international airport. Inside, the security screening area has been gutted.

Early in the war, Russian troops held the airport briefly, only to be quickly expelled by Ukrainian fighters. Since then, the Russian forces have kept trying to gain control so that their transport planes can bring in troops and equipment to feed their fight and continue their push west.

But for now, the Ukrainians keep stopping them.

“We have a very strong position, and we’re waiting for them,” said Sgt. Ruslan Khoda. “There is nothing unexpected. We know they are arriving and from where they’re arriving. And we’re ready to say, ‘Hello, Russian stupid boys.’”

A boring night

On Monday, Kim was somber in his evening video message. He acknowledged that the situation had grown more serious.

“There’s no logical sense to it,” he said. “But the initiative is on our side, and we’re moving.”

With that, on the 18th day of the war, he sent the people of Mykolaiv to bed: “I wish everyone a boring night.”

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