MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — There is no door in Anna Svetlaya’s refrigerator. A Russian missile recently shot him down. The free-standing door saved her, protecting her chest from shrapnel as she passed out in a pool of blood.
It was just before 7 a.m. in a residential area here in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv when Svetlaya, 67, felt her world explode in a hail of metal shards, glass and debris as she prepared breakfast.
Her face a mosaic of cuts and bruises, worthy of her look, Svetlaya said: ‘The Russians just don’t like us. We wish we knew why!” A retired nurse, she surveyed her small apartment, where her two sisters worked to restore order.
“It is our ‘brother Russians’ who do this,” said one of them, Larisa Kryzhanovska. “I don’t even hate them, I just feel sorry for them.”
Since the beginning of the war, Russian forces have besieged Mykolaiv, frustrated by their failure to capture it and advance westward toward Odessa. But the city’s resistance has hardened.
Almost surrounded in the first weeks of fighting, it has pushed back and has become a linchpin of Ukrainian resistance on the southern front. But at regular intervals, with missiles and artillery, Russia reminds the 230,000 people still here that they are within range of the indiscriminate slaughter that characterizes Moscow’s persecution of the war.
One person was killed and 20 injured in a Russian strike on Friday, several of whom are still in hospital. Mykolaiv is no longer immediately threatened with capture – a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south is troubling Russian forces – but the toll of the war is clear. Once a summer tourist destination, a town beautifully situated at the confluence of the southern Buh and Ingul rivers, Mykolaiv has become haunted.
Weeds are creeping up on sidewalks. Buildings are shuttered. Drinking water is scarce. More than half of the population has left; those who remain are almost all unemployed. About 80% of the people here, many of them old, depend on food and clothing from aid organizations. Every now and then another explosion electrifies the summer air, driving people to despair if it doesn’t kill them.
Expelled from a nearby village, Natalia Holovenko, 59, was standing in line to enroll for help when she began to sob. “We have no Nazis here!” she said, referring to the false justification of the war by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was needed to “de-nazify” Ukraine. “He just wants to kill us.”
In her pleading eyes, the madness of this Russian project seemed etched.
Without the Black Sea coast, eight years after Putin took Crimea, Ukraine would be a country that has been undermined and has lost its ports. A grain-exporting nation, albeit now under a Russian naval blockade, would turn its economy upside down.
But as Russia advances mile by plodding mile in the Donbas region to the east, it is held back in the south. Since their capture of Kherson, about 40 miles east of Mykolaiv, early in the war, Russian forces have been either stalled or driven back. Ukrainians, who have become more determined, have recaptured villages in the Kherson region.
“We will not give the south away to anyone, we will give back everything that is ours and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said after visiting Mykolaiv and Odessa last week. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said on Tuesday that “our military will certainly occupy these countries”.
Certainly, Oleksandr Senkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv, exudes confidence. A man in perpetual motion in green camouflage pants, with a Glock pistol on his hip and an almost manic glow in his blue eyes, he said: “The next step is to get the Russians out of Kherson and then them out of Ukraine.”
But before that happens, Ukraine needs long-range artillery, he said. Drawing on a paper placemat in a cafe, he illustrated how Russia can hit Mykolaiv, often with cluster munitions, from places that Ukrainian artillery cannot reach.
“Right now it’s frustrating,” he said. “If we have what we need, we can attack them without major losses.”
That will almost certainly take many months.
The mayor’s wife and two children left at the start of the war. He works around the clock. Water is a big problem. The Russians destroyed pipes carrying fresh water from the Dnieper River. The water from new boreholes is insufficient and the water from the southern Buh is saline.
“It’s a big problem,” he said. “But we are over-motivated, we know what we are fighting for, our children and grandchildren, and our country. They don’t know what they’re fighting for and that’s why they’re under-motivated.”
He sees this as a war between cultures – in Russia the leader says something “and the sheep follow”, he said, but in Ukraine democracy has taken hold. In Putin’s Russia, everything said means the opposite: “protect” means “invade” and “military targets” means “citizens”. In Ukraine, Senkevych said: “we live in reality.”
That reality is harsh. Anna Zamazeeva, the head of Mykolaiv’s regional council, led me to her former office, a building with a gaping hole in the center where a Russian cruise missile hit on March 29, killing dozens of her colleagues. A last minute delay to get to work saved her life.
“That was a turning point for me,” she says. “Every day the husbands and children of the fallen watched as the bodies and debris were removed, and I couldn’t persuade them to leave. Then I fully realized the brutality and inhumanity of the Russians.”
Only she has returned to her father’s house. She sleeps in the room where she slept as a child. The war, she estimates, will last at least another year. Her days are spent trying to get food, water and clothing for tens of thousands of people, many of whom have been displaced from their homes in nearby towns and villages.
The war is ultimately simple for her, captured on the olive green shirt she wears. A single word appears on a map of Ukraine: “Home”.
“I’m a free-spirited person and I can’t understand if someone doesn’t recognize the freedom and self-expression of others,” she said. “Our children grew up free and I will protect them with my chest.”
As it was a day of appreciation for health workers, Zamazeeva attended a ceremony in a hospital. Vitaliy Kim, the head of the regional military administration and a symbol of the city’s resistance, was also in attendance. One of the women honored kissed his hand and said with a big smile, “Good morning. We are from Ukraine!” The phrase, which Kim used in his video messages, has become a proud expression of Mykolaiv’s indomitable spirit.
At another hospital, Vlad Sorokin, 21, lay in bed, his ribs broken, his lung punctured, his right hip and a knee ripped to pieces. He is another victim of the rocket attack that injured Svetlaya.
“I’m not angry,” he said. “I’m just asking why.” He struggled to speak and closed his eyes. “The Russians have put themselves in a very bad situation. They remain silent and listen to what they hear from the top and don’t think for themselves – which is why they think it’s normal to attack others.”