KHERSON – Yurii, a former Ukrainian soldier, knows all too well about living in his rickety attic: It was here, during Russia’s eight-month occupation of the southern city of Kherson, that he hid to avoid capture by the invaders.
Now, the 51-year-old in fatigues is taking refuge again, after the latest big development in Russia’s war in Ukraine: A breach of the Kakhovka dam upstream on the Dnieper River that sent floodwaters gushing through his home and rising to the low edge of his corrugated metal roof.
Authorities on both sides of the river – Russians control the east bank near the delta, the Ukrainians the west — say thousands of people have lost their homes in the torrential flood, where waters were still rising on Wednesday.
Like many other determined and defiant Ukrainians, Yurii has faced disaster after disaster since Russian forces swept into Ukraine over 15 months ago. Like many, his anger has grown over their perceived disregard for peaceful Ukrainians.
“They do it without pitying us,” he said, clutching one of his three kittens by the scruff of its neck, “specifically against peaceful people.”
“My house has drowned,” said Yurii – nom de guerre “Maidan” -- who declined to provide his family name out of concern for possible repercussions if the Russians return. He fought Russians and Russia-backed separatists in a conflict that began in 2014 and escalated into a full-scale war last year.
Kherson was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, marking a momentous victory for Ukraine and a humiliating defeat for the Kremlin. The residents of Kherson greeted Ukraine’s army with jubilation, celebrating the liberation of the city for days.
They hold onto hope that the worst is over. Many suffered abuses, tortures, and unjustified detentions during Russia’s occupation. The Ukrainian recapture of Kherson instantly placed the city on the southern front line, facing daily Russian attacks from across the Dnieper River, mostly using artillery or drones.
These relentless strikes frequently target civilian areas, resulting in routine casualty reports. Meanwhile, the majority of the Kherson region, located on the other bank of the Dnieper, remains under Russian occupation.
These days, Yurii gets around using a two-by-four to paddle a makeshift raft cobbled together out of a Styrofoam sheet lashed to a wooden board. He believes the allegation of Ukrainian authorities that Russian forces deliberately destroyed the dam. Russia blames Ukrainian shelling for the breach on Tuesday.
“They (the Russians) cannot do anything against the military, but they can do it against civilians,” said Yurii.
Before the war, Kherson had a population of about 300,000. When the city was liberated in November, only about 80,000 remained. A further 10,000 people left the city after it was retaken because of the constant Russian shelling, local lawmaker Serhii Khlan told Radio Liberty in December.
In early June, shortly before the dam breach, regional Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said one-third of the buildings in the liberated area were damaged or destroyed. By that point, regional authorities had received around 17,000 requests for financial assistance to rebuild houses damaged by the constant strikes.
After the Ukrainians retook Kherson, Russian forces retreated across the river and have repeatedly used their positions to shell the city.
While Ukrainian authorities say nearly 2,000 people had been evacuated from flooded areas like Kherson on Thursday, others – like Yurii — refuse to bow to the pressure and have stuck it out.
The Kopaev family -- mother Galyna, father Viktor, and daughter Angelina – spent time Wednesday sifting through waterlogged photos in their inundated apartment and drying out clothes on the roof.
While they’ll spend the night with friends, they plan to wait out the man-made disaster and stay close to home. They’ve spent their entire lives in Kherson, and didn’t budge even when the neighborhood came under repeated shelling.
After all they’ve been through, Galyna said she just wouldn’t believe the waters would keep rising.
“I’m not crying. There’s no point in crying. Nothing will help us,” she said, before adding: “We’ll survive, we’ll endure.”
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.