MYKOLAIV – Days into Russia’s all-out war, the regional capital of Mykolaiv became a bastion of Ukraine’s southern defenses.
After Russia rapidly occupied Kherson in late February, Mykolaiv immediately became its next target. Their forces shelled, bombed and fired missiles at the regional capital, trying to encircle the city of half a million people.
By the end of March, however, Ukraine’s Armed Forces had pushed Russian troops back to the border with Kherson Oblast. The only occupied city in Mykolaiv Oblast is now Snihurivka, 70 kilometers east of the capital.
Even though Russian forces were thrown back from Mykolaiv, life there has yet to return to normal.
The shelling continues, major businesses are shut down, and the ports aren’t operational due to Russia's Black Sea blockade.
Worse yet, the city’s water pipeline has been damaged, leaving Mykolaiv without running water for over a month.
‘Water is now priceless’
Twice a day, residents of Mykolaiv line up next to trucks that bring drinking water to the city.
In mid-April, Russian troops blew up the Dnipro-Mykolaiv water pipeline. It was impossible to repair, as the damaged area was under Russian control.
For about a month, locals collected water from storm drains and rivers, but it was unsuitable for drinking.
Odesa residents came to the rescue. They began bringing tons of drinking water to volunteer centers across the city. From there, it’s delivered to Mykolaiv.
“On behalf of the residents of Mykolaiv, I would like to say thank you to the people of Odesa. This is an expression of humanity,” Oleksandr, a local resident who did not want to reveal his last name, told the Kyiv Independent. Locals in war-affected areas are often reluctant to give their full names for security reasons.
Odesa helps a great deal, agreed Dmytro Davydenko, a coordinator at the largest volunteer center in Mykolaiv.
“Volunteers based at the Odesa Food Market started helping us recently, but very actively,” Davydenko said.
“Once they brought a truck with 12 tons of water. This is priceless. The centralized supply of water has been cut off, it’s a humanitarian catastrophe for a city of half a million people,” he said.
By mid-May, local authorities managed to partially restore centralized water utilities. However, this water comes from Dnipro–Bug estuary and, despite filtration, cannot be used for drinking or cooking. It’s also only available for a couple of hours, twice a day.
Thus trucks keep bringing drinking water to the city.
The city is now working on improving filtration and digging new wells – Mykolaiv has dug at least 14 since the start of the war – and building up reserves for the future.
Black Sea blockade
Russia’s war has caused Mykolaiv to suffer in many ways.
As a port city on the Black Sea, Mykolaiv must deal with both heavy bombardment and Russia’s blockade, which has left many locals without work and caused an international food shortage.
UN World Food Program Head David Beasley warned about possible famine in countries that have been cut off from Ukrainian exports they rely on.
“Millions of people around the world will die because these ports are being blocked,” he said in early May.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters. Since the farmers are now unable to ship grain abroad, they face another challenge — finding a place to store it.
“Farmers now build new warehouses. This is the right thing to do as they need some time to restore logistics,” Vitaliy Kim, governor of Mykolaiv Oblast, said during a briefing on May 14, emphasizing that his main goal is to resume operations at the ports.
“I really want to find ways to provide logistics for the export of grain that we have in the short-term,” he went on.
Russia’s Black Sea blockade affects not just farmers but sailors like Vyacheslav Lutskov. In his 20 years of sailing, he visited every corner of the world except Australia, he said. Now, he is stuck in Mykolaiv, jobless.
“I have not been able to work on a ship for three months already,” he said.
“I saw the world and traveled across Europe. I would be very happy if everything ends with us winning.”
Staying to help
Despite these hardships and constant Russian attacks, many people see purpose in staying in Mykolaiv. They are willing to go the extra mile to help others.
The sailor, Lutskov, helps his friend’s sick father. Every couple of days, he brings him water from the river.
Valentyn Timokhin repairs elevators. When the full-scale war broke out in late February, he and his family were reluctant to leave. “What was the point of leaving? It was relatively quiet at the very beginning,” he recalled.
Soon, when hostilities escalated, he decided to stay because he felt he was needed at home. He was assigned to switch off the elevators across the city to prevent people from getting stuck inside them during bombardments, when no one would be able to rescue them.
When the water crisis broke out in mid-April, Timokhin was asked to switch the elevators back on.
“The problem is that people have to carry water to the top floors of their buildings,” he said.
Many people in Mykolaiv help out through the volunteer center that Dmytro Davydenko coordinates. It attracts 200 to 400 volunteers daily.
Davydenko, who works at Ukraine's State Pilotage Service, joined the center in early March. Since then, he said, it has grown from just making Molotov cocktails to doing everything including clearing rubble after shelling, evacuating archives from courts, building fortifications across the city, and, of course, providing humanitarian aid.
“It is a real corporation now,” he said. “We can help 200-1,000 people a day. The scale is huge. This is the biggest center here.”
Natalia Redkina, a pharmacist, joined the volunteer effort to help those in need.
“Back then, it was very loud where I lived. It was scary,” Redkina said. “Then I decided that it was time to stop being scared and go do something…From a mental health perspective it helped me a lot.”
“Our goal is to have our guys,” Redkina said of the military, bursting into tears, “be the healthiest and the most well-supplied. We’ll do everything to achieve that.”
“The soldiers often need basic things,” Davydenko jumped in.
“It's not usually talked about, but when soldiers sit in trenches for a very long time, they simply need socks and underwear, as they cannot always wash them there,” he said.
“One unit needs 100 to 300 pairs of underpants and shower shoes, a very scarce commodity nowadays,” he went on.
The center also provides the military with sleeping bags, boots, and stoves. Teaming up with local restaurants, the volunteers also deliver food to territorial defense checkpoints.
It also provides humanitarian aid for internally displaced people coming to Mykolaiv from occupied territories, such as Snihurivka and Kherson Oblast.
“I sort the aid that arrives from different places and then give it away to communities, families of soldiers, other people in need,” said Iryna Kyropyatnik, a photographer turned volunteer.
“Baby formula is in high demand because there is a problem, due to stress, mothers don’t have milk,” she said.
When asked where the help comes from, Kyropyatnik pointed to the wall of the stockroom she is in charge of: “Here is a letter from a home for the elderly in the Netherlands.”
The help arrives from all over the globe, she said. “The latest aid arrived from Italy. Here are the drawings that came with it.”
The volunteers, however, are not optimistic about the future as they see a decline in aid.
“We feel the flow of support is drying up,” Davydenko said.
“People’s pockets have emptied”