On a footpath in central Mykolaiv, the sun beats down on a throng crowding around a truck-and-trailer unit. People carry 10-litre water bottles under their arms. Some use children’s strollers and motorized scooters as makeshift shopping trolleys.
It is a similar scene every day, as residents of the besieged Ukrainian city scramble for fresh drinking water. Since shelling took out the Mykolaiv-Dnipro pipeline in April, the water that comes out of the taps is now a dark yellow, sulfuric-smelling and so salty it causes the lips to pucker on contact.
“But the water is not the biggest problem compared with all the other problems,” Elena Drutskaya tells Global News as she fills empty bottles with her 13-year-old son.
Drutsyaka’s home was destroyed by shelling on Feb. 26, while her family was sheltering in the basement below. They lived in the decrepit building until April when they fled to Odesa, but have returned to try to sort out paperwork for a potential rebuild.
So, what is the biggest problem in Mykolaiv right now? “Building plans for tomorrow,” Drutskaya says, sadly.
Six months ago, the former Soviet shipbuilding capital of Mykolaiv almost suffered the same fate as its occupied neighbour, Kherson, 40 kilometres to the east, when Russian forces poured out of Crimea on their march along the Black Sea coast. Instead, the southern stronghold mounted one of the most valiant defences of the war thus far: pushing Russian troops back to a front line near the Dnipro River which has barely moved since March.
But although no longer living with a threat on its doorstep, the situation in Mykolaiv remains dire. Fresh drinking water must be shipped in via trucks from Odesa. After half of the population of about 500,000 fled, businesses and social services collapsed.
Rockets continue to regularly fall across the city reducing homes, hospitals, schools and hotels to rubble. At the time of writing, Mykolaiv has escaped shelling just 22 of 172 days of war.
After four unprecedented days of relative calm befell the city this week, a barrage of rockets fell on industrial facilities, residential buildings and shops overnight on Aug. 13, further adding to a tally of almost 10,000 civilian buildings destroyed by war.
“They just terrorize civilian people because there is no other explanation about why do they do this,” Mykolaiv regional governor Vitaliy Kim tells Global News.
Unlike other Ukrainian cities that have fended off invading forces and returned to life as it almost used to be — Kyiv, namely — life in Mykolaiv is anything but normal.
Mykolaiv bombarded with ‘all available’ artillery
Located on Ukraine’s Southern Buh river, Mykolaiv is one of the country’s most important transportation hubs.
Its shipbuilding yards assembled the Russian flagship Moskva. That ship now lies at the bottom of the sea, having been sunk by Ukraine early in the war, but its sister vessel – the Ukraina – remains, rusting and largely unusable because it was built for Russian weapons.
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Mykolaiv was also the target of some of the first shots of the Russian invasion — the Ukrainian Air Force base at Kulbakino, on the southeast outskirts of the city, was attacked and overrun in the early hours of Feb. 24.
About a week later, thousands of Russian troops arrived on the doorstep of the city, having already taken Kherson and looking to pave the way for an assault on Odesa. Only Mykolaiv stood between Russia and the occupation of most of southern Ukraine.
“But (the Russians) are bloody idiots, and to be honest, I respected them a lot more as an enemy before this invasion,” Dmytro Pletenchuk, public affairs officer for the regional military administration, says.
“They tried to capture Mykolaiv, which is the largest military garrison in Ukraine — a city full of war veterans since 2014.”
Bolstered by strong and defiant leadership, including from Gov. Vitaliy Kim, Mykolaiv drove Russians from Kulbakino and picked off troops who were fanned out across the countryside in small numbers.
But Mykolaiv paid a heavy price for its heroics – despite invading forces being out of sight, they’re certainly not out of mind.
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“The city of Mykolaiv can ‘boast’ that the Russians have practically used all available artillery means in the Russian army here, except for the atomic bomb, on our city,” Pletenchuk says.
Destroyed riverfront hotels, hospitals, schools and houses have been blown apart by Uragans, Smerch rockets, and illegal cluster bombs.
In the midst of the rubble of his former office, Pletenchuk keeps a “personal collection” of exploded remnants.
On March 29, a little after 8:30 a.m. as workers were arriving at Pletenchuk’s nine-storey building in central Mykolaiv, a cruise missile fired from the Black Sea blasted a hole through the middle of the Soviet-style block as people arrived for work. The crumbling structure is now held together by a single sliver of wall panel from the eighth and ninth floors.
Inside, on what Pletenchuk describes as his “extreme tour of Mykolaiv,” a Persian rug hangs from into the abyss from the sixth floor. High-heeled shoes and smashed Christmas decorations lie among shattered glass, state documents and file folders. Most of the records held by the regional administration are now lost, the remaining documents left fluttering in the wind.
“Of course (there was no digitization),” Pletenchuk says, “this is Ukraine.”
At the time of the bombardment, Pletenchuk was two blocks away when his workplace was blown to smithereens. Governor Kim, who also worked in the building, had overslept that morning and wasn’t in his office at the time. Thirty-seven other people were not so lucky.
Blood is smeared in a handprint on a wall and pooled on stairs in the stairwell. One rather graphic blood smear in a third-floor hallway was from a man who had just taken his morning coffee and was walking back to his desk, Pletenchuk says. He was among the dead.
Life deteriorates in Mykolaiv
As the war dragged on, half of Mykolaiv’s residents fled the city. Life became harder and harder for those who remained as businesses closed, work dried up and shelling ramped up.
Thunderous booms from artillery guns sound across the city throughout the day. Air raid sirens wail intermittently.
In mid-April, Russian troops blew up a portion of the Dnipro-Mykolaiv water pipeline, near Kherson. Because the damaged area was under Russian control, it was impossible to repair.
Residents were left collecting rainwater or from puddles. Authorities eventually connected the city’s water supply to the Southern Buh, but the smelly, yellow water that now gushes forth out of people’s taps is not fit to wash or clean with – let alone drink. Residents say the water shipped in from Odesa is not enough, and they don’t have enough money to buy it from the supermarkets.
“It’s very hard to live here, there’s no work and no water,” local resident Antonina Dementieva laments.
Before February, Dementieva was a sweet-shop owner, but was forced to close her business due to the war. Her husband is in the National Guard of Ukraine, having fought in the Donbas war since 2014, where he lost one of his legs. During the 2022 invasion, he served on the front lines with the help of a prosthetic, but has since returned to serve in Mykolaiv.
Dementieva is among about two dozen people lined up for a water truck in central Mykolaiv on a scorching Saturday morning. She has 30 eight-litre bottles with her – some for her and her brother, the rest for six families in their building who are elderly or infirm.
The “only way we can all survive,” she says, is to band together.
But local authorities downplay the water issues in the city. In the scheme of things, Gov. Kim says, it is not their biggest issue.
Tensions high over Russian saboteurs
For now, the city is more preoccupied with flushing out those conspiring with the enemy.
Two weeks ago, Kim, the local governor who has amassed a huge international following, imposed a weekend shutdown on Mykolaiv in an attempt to track down those he suspected of helping Russian forces identify military locations for missile strikes.
While he won’t be drawn on the outcome of that shutdown, refusing to say how many potential conspirators were found or arrested and refuting numbers reported in local media, he says simply his men found “a lot” of people helping the Russians.
“So we have a very big base of people now. Many of them escaped and left the city before (the lockdown) but we don’t care. It’s OK, let them go.”
Kim’s coy responses and tell-tale smirk have become hallmarks of a leadership style lauded across the world. In the early days of the war, his daily video messages preached calm and reasoned defiance, led by a greeting that became a slogan: “Good morning, we are from Ukraine!”
On Instagram, he has amassed half a million followers with a feed full of peace signs and selfies. Two weeks into the war, Kim posted a picture from his office with his feet up on his desk and a pair of colourful socks on display. That image went viral – resulting in memes and T-shirts with his face on them.
But when we meet Kim, dressed in his trademark graphic T-shirt in an outdoor location we’re told we cannot describe or photograph, other than it being in front of a nondescript stone fence, we see only brief glimpses of his wily social media persona. While keen to appeal to an international audience for help for not only Mykolaiv, but also Ukraine as a whole – “we need weapons, ammunition and money” – Kim is also careful not to give anything away.
He’s not worried that his intense focus on conspirators has seemingly left Mykolaiv’s population highly paranoid of anyone they don’t recognize.
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Within seconds of our crew of journalists stepping out in the city, notepads and camera equipment in hand, we were filmed by a passerby and reported to the Security Service of Ukraine. Barely 10 minutes had passed before the police arrived. Several times, residents, noting our camera gear, accused us of being “spies” or “saboteurs.”
“That’s good,” Kim says with a wry smile, when we feed this anecdote back to him. He is strongly of the opinion that there is no such thing as a public that is “too paranoid.”
“Even one death is worth (this job). It’s not too much,” he says.
Besides, he reasons, sometimes people don’t even know they’re helping the enemy cause. Some Russians are dropping questions about military locations into conversations with local residents, he says, while asking other innocuous questions.
So some of the work of his local forces is to simply tell people not to talk to strangers, or to share pictures with them, he says. When asked if most of his lockdown strategy is about education, Kim answers with a smirk: “Let it be.”
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Telegram chats where people were sharing military locations are now “clean,” he adds, but they may impose further lockdowns in the future to make sure they stay that way.
Kim goes on to downplay any notion of a crisis in his city, saying there are no humanitarian issues – city cleaners are out clearing rocket attack locations the next morning, supermarket shelves are stocked, rubbish is collected, people are taken care of. The water issue is not “tragic,” he says, but simply requires “more time to fix.”
This, however, doesn’t seem to reflect the actual situation in a city where Red Cross vans are parked in the city centre daily and inundated with throngs of people desperate for food and other goods.
When asked what the city’s biggest issue is right now – if not water or humanitarian aid – he said Mykolaiv was simply a “small part that has the same problems, like the whole of Ukraine.”
However, he changed tack somewhat when issuing one final, rallying call abroad.
“I don’t want people in other countries to feel like our war is like a show. So when you are tired of the war, you can’t just switch off the TV and there is no war. We are counting the war, not in days, but in victims.”
‘For one of our guns, they have 10’
More than 120 people have died in Mykolaiv, with more than 500 injured, since the start of the war.
On Aug. 13, after four days without shelling, six Smerch rockets landed at about 8 p.m., damaging residential buildings, shops and industrial facilities.
The following night, eight rockets landed across the city.
When asked why Mykolaiv had managed a few nights of interrupted sleep recently, Pletenchuk has just one simple answer: “Because HIMARS.” He is grinning widely.
The much-lauded American-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System was used by Ukrainian armed forces to strike the Antonivksy bridge in the Kherson region on Aug. 13, rendering it unusable to resupply Russian troops on the other side of the Dnipro River.
It has helped Mykolaiv liberate its regional villages, too, meaning just five per cent of the Mykolaiv region is currently under occupation – the village of Snihurivka – compared with 60 per cent of the Kherson region.
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Pletenchuk believes HIMARS is turning the tides of the war in the south – slowly. Their tactic is not to attempt to “climb” the defence lines of the Russians, but to preserve the lives of ground troops with long-range artillery, he says.
“Russia has an advantage in numbers – both in people and technology. For one of our guns, they have 10.”
Locals using evacuation buses as public transport
Despite the trauma of living in Mykolaiv, many residents refuse to leave. Even those who left earlier in the war are returning – oftentimes against the wishes of authorities.
Official advice, according to Kim, is: “If you have a job and you can help military forces, you need to come back and work for our victory. If you do not have a job or tasks for victory, you can be … in a safer place.”
As of Aug. 10, about 9,100 civilian buildings have been destroyed – including 320 educational institutions, 65 medical facilities and 5,885 homes.
Evacuation buses from Mykolaiv run to Odesa several times per week. But Pletenchuk says they’re just being used as public transport at this point.
“We can’t even collect one bus full of people who want to move away…. People are just using it to do trips to Odesa.”
The remaining population, as it stands, seem to be taking their cues from Kim. Our complaints about a sleepless night after eight explosions elicit laughter from hotel staff: “Oh no, no. That was quiet – we slept well. Bad is when there are 20 to 30 explosions per night.”
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But this demeanour of calm defiance comes at the expense of personal protection. When air raid sirens sound, residents continue to pour into crowded shopping malls. Bomb shelters are rarely used. Residents continue to die in their homes.
“It’s such an interesting paradox,” Pletenchuk says. “People are afraid, but 15 minutes after the shelling, children are playing 20 metres away from a corpse. I’ve seen this.”
Those who have stayed say they did so to serve the city they love.
Maria Nevynska says she deals with the shelling and the 28-kilometre drive in from Nova Odesa to collect fresh water several times per week, because she has lived in Mykolaiv for 46 years and doesn’t want to live anywhere else.
She and her husband are both chemistry teachers. Two of the schools at which she previously taught have been destroyed by the war.
“We understand, we are elderly people but we love our work. We teach very good kids and they work so hard, even when they’re in different cities or different countries,” she says.
“For us, it’s very, very important to stay.”