NOVOVORONTSOVKA, Kherson Oblast – Volodymyr Bebekh finished watering his garden in the evening and decided to wash up in his outdoor shower.
As he went to turn on the water, a Russian rocket flew right into his neighbor’s home.
“Instead of a shower, I got covered in dirt,” Bebekh said.
The 71-year-old says his life was spared thanks to his mulberry tree, which took the brunt of the strike. Bebekh says he was about to cut his “rescuer” down, but that’s no longer in his plans.
The village of Novovorontsovka in Ukraine’s southeastern Kherson Oblast sits right on the border with neighboring Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and lies some 15 kilometers from Ukrainian territory currently under Russian occupation. Most of Kherson Oblast has been occupied by Russia since early March.
Close to the frontlines, Novovorontsovka is under constant shelling by Russian forces as Ukraine moves to conduct a counteroffensive to liberate Kherson Oblast and fighting intensifies.
And amid the hostilities, Novovorontsovka’s local leadership has fled, leaving the village's residents to fend for themselves, often without electricity or running water.
Shells exploding, everywhere
Mykola Mosur, 48, thought he was used to waking up to the sounds of explosions. One morning, however, it was louder than usual.
“I hear a ‘boom.’ I raise my head and there are flames and dust everywhere. One shell fragment flew above my head and landed in the wall,” Mosur said. “You could make a knife out of it.”
This was the third time a Russian shell had hit his home – the first, in March, exploded near his yard, the second in his garden, and the third dug a crater right on his doorstep in late June.
Mosur tried in vain to patch up the hole in his roof caused by the blast, but says it continues to leak.
Liudmyla Matveeva, another resident of Novovorontsovka, no longer has a roof over her head at all. A Russian shell had landed right on it.
Bricks and debris crashed onto the sofa where she usually took her daily nap. Matveeva, who had been staying with her daughter in Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, at the time of the attack, now has no home to return to.
“There is no point in trying to renovate it,” Matveeva told the Kyiv Independent over the phone. “The roof will fall in a week or so. It’s made from clay, you know. It will fall and that will be it.”
Her neighbor, Ivan Barylnyk, who had been looking after Matveeva’s home in her absence, remained in Novovorontsovka to care for his 92-year-old mother.
Because his mother has difficulties with vision, hearing, and mobility, she and Barylnyk do not shelter in their basement to wait out each strike.
“Every three hours we hear loud explosions, it’s awful,” Barylnyk said. As he talked to the Kyiv Independent, another set of explosions echoed.
A village on fire
Locals say that as the shelling increases, Russian forces have also started to use incendiary rounds that set houses on fire.
This forced Liudmyla Nekhlyda to make an unimaginable decision: to separate from her children. With her kids evacuated to safety in Kryvyi Rih, Nekhlyda remained in Novovorontsovka with her husband to help her fellow residents.
“They were so brave – not afraid at all. They know that, once the shelling starts, they have to run to the house and hide in a corner,” she said of her children, bursting into tears. “I’m sorry.”
“Before, we thought we could hide behind the wall and be safe there, but now it’s not the case. They (Russian troops) use other, new weapons,” Nekhlyda continued. “Now it all burns.”
Nekhlyda works at a local volunteer center that provides residents with groceries and building materials. Her husband is doing electrical repairs across the village.
The electricity cuts out two to three times a day in Novovorontsovka, she said. It's difficult to restore as electricians lack equipment.
Most electricians, including her husband, lost their jobs once the full-out war started. They carry on their work voluntarily.
“They are not paid, but they still do it, because they understand that people cannot live without electricity. They are residents of this village themselves, so they want to help in some way,” she said.
Due to incessant shelling, residents also often have no access to drinking water and the supply of fuel has been cut.
“We help the best way we can as volunteers,” Nekhlyda said, “but we are lacking the authorities that, unfortunately, abandoned us.”
On their own
The residents of Novovorontsovka interviewed by the Kyiv Independent didn’t mince their words when speaking about the community’s head, Volodymyr Marchuk.
Marchuk has served for years as the leader of the 15,000 people Novovorontsovka community, which comprises ten villages. With the exception of Novovorontsovka, Osokorivka, and Trudoliubivka, most of the villages in the community are occupied by Russian forces.
At the start of Russia’s full-scale war, locals say Marchuk vanished.
“I am 100% sure that he ran away and even caused damage,” said Bebekh.
According to Barylnyk, “people are upset that he is in Kryvyi Rih while his people are here.”
The Kyiv Independent met with Marchuk in Kryvyi Rih, where he says he was evacuated alongside his colleagues in order to continue working effectively.
He says that he and his administration are working remotely, helping to facilitate the evacuation of those remaining in the Russian-occupied villages of his community.
On April 21, he went on an evacuation trip himself, together with his fellow colleagues. Marchuk says Russian troops held him captive and disrupted the evacuation, despite prior agreements.
“They tied my hands with tape and then wrapped my head with tape, too,” Marchuk said.
He spent the night in what he believes to have been a Russian warehouse and was released the next day. Since then, he has not visited Novovorontsovka.
While his constituents do not appear to accept this account, Marchuk says his story is above board.
“I successfully passed the checks with the SBU,” he said, referring to Ukraine's Security Service, “and a polygraph.”
Listen to our podcast: Did the War End? Ep. 7: Fleeing Occupation in Kherson Oblast – A Story of Separation