His mother Julia Nesterenko was happy to encourage the habit. “We even had a basketball hoop at home,” the 33-year-old told CNN when describing their first family home. It was their “nest”, she says, with a small garden and a vegetable patch.
It was time “to leave the occupied territories for safety…in order to survive,” Julia said. The Russians had taken over their village, Verkhnii Rohachyk, and the Nesterenko family feared the consequences.
With nothing more than a backpack and their important documents, the family took what seemed like the easiest route to Ukrainian-held areas, she said. On April 7, the family of three and 11 others boarded an evacuation boat, operated by a local resident, crossing the Dnipro River from the Russian-occupied southern part of the Kherson region to to the territory under Ukrainian control on the other side of the river. . The Dnipro, one of the longest waterways in Europe, crosses Ukraine and its region of Kherson before flowing into the Black Sea.
The boat trip, which started at the edge of the fishing village of Pervomaivka, should have been straightforward. It was the seventh evacuation trip by boat from the village to a Ukrainian-held area on the northern bank of the Dnipro since the start of the war, according to Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of Kryvyi Rih, in the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk. .
Instead, it turned into a bloodbath, according to Julia, two other survivors, a friend of a victim and several regional officials. They described how Russian rockets and gunfire targeted the boat after it unintentionally drifted towards the front line.
Roman Shelest, head of the Eastern Kryvyi Rih District Prosecutor’s Office for Ukraine, told CNN the boat drifted onto the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces and was pulled 70 meters from shore.
A survivor, who declined to be named due to safety fears, said the boat got lost in a smokescreen, believed to have been created by the Russians. CNN has not been able to independently verify this claim.
“This shot was made using a multiple rocket launch system, possibly Grad, but we could (only) say the exact type of weapon until after (the forensic investigation) “, Shelest added.
One of the survivors also said he thought he had been hit by Russian Grad rockets.
When the boat’s navigator reported that the group had drifted near the Russian village of Osokorivka, the morning silence was quickly broken by the sound of rockets exploding, survivors said.
Vladimir collapsed bleeding in Julia’s arms. “My husband behind me also fell on top of me when he was shot in the head,” Julia told CNN, her voice soft and monotonous, seemingly devoid of emotion after all she lost during that travel.
Four people were killed in the attack that day. Oleh was among the three to die on the boat; Vladimir died shortly afterwards in a hospital. Another victim was a lawyer who had traveled to the Kherson region to rescue her son and provide humanitarian aid, the lawyer’s friend Tatyana Denisenko told CNN.
Photos of the aftermath of the attack showed what looked like the remains of a rocket on the shore, as well as bullet and shrapnel marks in the hull of the boat.
“Based on the shells and ammunition we saw in the area and on the shore, we were able to see the direction of the shots – which demonstrates that they were coming from the south, and that is the territory occupied at that time and under the control of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” Prosecutor Shelest, who is investigating the attack, told CNN.
Kherson in crisis
Kherson was one of the first cities captured by the Russians. Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev says people are ‘actively’ leaving Kherson and other cities in the largely Russian-occupied southern region after atrocities emerged from the Kyiv region, following the Kremlin’s hasty withdrawal from the north from Ukraine.
“Cities are emptying,” he said on Tuesday, as Russia refocuses its offensive on eastern Ukraine. “It hurts me a lot when people leave Kherson. (By) leaving their homes, people will never go home again,” he said.
Rumors are growing that a referendum will be held in Russian-controlled areas of Kherson, especially in areas on the left bank of the Dnipro, in an effort to legitimize Russia’s illegal land grab. A similar tactic unfolded in eastern Ukraine in 2014, where pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk staged referendums on forming “people’s republics”, in a vote that was dismissed by Ukraine and Western countries as a sham.
Ukrainians living on the left bank of the region have peacefully resisted the Russian occupation with rallies in Kherson and Kolykhayev, the mayor said on Tuesday. At an earlier rally in Kherson, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian forces of shooting at unarmed people. “Russian soldiers don’t even know what it’s like to be free,” Oleh Baturin, a reporter for local newspaper Novyi Den, who recently left the area, told CNN.
“For example, Kochubeivka, Novovorontsovka (where Osokorivka is located) and Vysokopillia settlements – there are villages that died out in the first half of March and were totally looted and destroyed,” he said. declared.
Only when the Russians leave will the horror of the occupation emerge, Baturin predicted.
Three survivors described the trauma of the boat attack last week in interviews with CNN.
“It was so sudden, everyone was in shock,” said one of the survivors who spoke to CNN. When the rockets hit the area, fragments began hitting passengers, he said.
The survivor says he was spared because he fell from the boat in the first moments of the bombardment. “I was wearing such heavy boots that I was immediately pulled to the bottom (of the river). Then we heard that (rockets) were pouring in,” he said.
They had drifted into an active front line running along the northern coast around the village of Osokorivka. Ukrainian soldiers began shouting from the banks of the river, throwing their weapons to the ground and wading through the water to retrieve the boat and civilians, the survivor said. It took up to 15 minutes to get them out of the water around the Novovorontsovka area. CNN has geotagged images of the aftermath on this coastline.
“Our guys (Ukrainian military) helped, of course…to rush into the water and swim to the boat,” pulled the boat to shore, the survivor said.
Julia said the shock of the moment and the resulting trauma meant her memory of the event was hazy. “I don’t know why we were shot at. We didn’t understand what the noises were: bullets, shelling, explosions? she says. “And I didn’t understand what was going on – I was just in a fog.”
She remembers the soldiers carrying her husband’s body and “putting it on the beach”. His son Vladimir was still alive, but seriously injured. “He was breathing, he had a serious head injury (and) lost a lot of blood. We took him 40 kilometers to the nearest hospital,” she said. “He had surgery. There was still hope that they could save him. But as the doctors later said, ‘it was an injury incompatible with life.'”
Maxim Kolomiyets, a burly 37-year-old handyman, took the boat so he could get out of the area and join the Ukrainian army. He was knocked unconscious in the first moments of the bombardment, waking up hours later in a hospital with a shrapnel wound to his left arm.
A day after the attack, on April 8, Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, called the shelling of the boat a “war crime and a crime against humanity”, in a message on Facebook. Speaking to CNN, Vilkul, head of Kryvyi Rih’s military administration, said the Russians were “doing everything not to let civilians out of the occupied territories. Because apparently they’re afraid these people might say something about their posts. »
Julia now lives with relatives in a Ukrainian-held area, where she buried her son and her husband. She doesn’t know what to do next.
“We wanted this trip (to be) a chance to escape the occupation… For us, it was like a light at the end of the tunnel. Because it was already unbearable for us to be where we were,” she said.
“This war has ruined my family, my life – and the killings must stop. Immediately. Because it (ruins) destinies, lives.”
CNN’s Tara John reported and wrote from Lviv. Oleksandr Fylyppov, Sandi Sidhu, Julia Presnyakova reported from Lviv. Nathan Hodge, Julia Kesaieva and Olga Voitovych contributed to this piece.