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Destroyed Dam Sends Ukrainians Fleeing for Shelter

The early morning explosion that woke Oksana Alfiorova from her sleep seemed normal enough, at least for wartime Kherson.

Ms. Alfiorova, who is 57, lived through nine months of Russian occupation — “really scary” — and since then, nearly as long under the constant shelling of the Russian forces that set up camp across the Dnipro River after they were driven out of the city.

But even for Kherson, she soon realized Tuesday morning, things were far from normal.

Water was filling the streets of her low-lying neighborhood — and rising quickly. A dam had been destroyed, and soon the power went out, the gas stopped working and the water supply to her apartment stopped flowing.

So Ms. Alfiorova did something she had long resisted despite all the hardships of the past year and a half: She fled. She boarded an evacuation train from Kherson to Mykolaiv, about 40 miles to the west, stepping out onto Platform 1, homeless for the first time in her life.

“I had no choice,” she said.

Many of her neighbors and friends, however, decided to take their chances and stay, and on the train meant to take people to safety, there were only 43 passengers, among them several children. Most of the 10 cars were empty.

Ms. Alfiorova said many people she knew had decided to move to higher ground to stay with friends and family or to ride out the floods in apartments on high floors.

“I have a neighbor on the third floor and she has three dogs,” she said. “She is not going to leave her home.”

She herself lives on the fourth floor of the nine-story building, and for her, the flooding was one hardship too many, though it is the just latest sorrow for a city that was home to 290,000 people before Russia invaded last year.

Ms. Alfiorova, a sociologist, recalled the grim months of Russian occupation, when she had little money or food. Soldiers menaced civilians, seeking out those with pro-Ukrainian sympathies, looting homes and businesses, and failing to deliver even the most basic services to people.

The threat did not fully lift after Ukrainian forces recaptured Kherson in November and the Russians took to shelling the city from afar. Ms. Alfiorova became so used to it that she learned to measure the danger by the sounds in the air.

“If I hear a whistle, it can be quite far,” she said. “If it is whistling I know it is not for my soul. But when it is a rumbling sound, you realize that it will land quite close.”

In March, she said, a shell exploded so close that she thought for a moment it could be the end. But she survived.

On Tuesday, when explosions boomed once again around 4 a.m. she figured it was just the usual Kherson wake-up call. It was not. “The neighbors were screaming,” she said.

As the streets disappeared under a coursing tide of water, police cars began patrolling with loudspeakers to warn of the growing danger. Evacuate, residents were urged.

“I checked the Telegram channels, talked to neighbors and friends and decided to go,” Ms. Alfiorova said. She and her son, Oleh, 23, raced to gather important documents, a few cherished possessions and her two cats, Biusia and Miusia, whom she placed in cardboard pet carriers.

But when they tried to make it out of their neighborhood, the shelling resumed, forcing them to take cover in a basement. Only when it subsided could they make their way to the train station.

“As we were leaving, we realized we forgot all of our money,” Ms. Alfiorova said. But there were teams of volunteers from a host of aid agencies at the train station to help her.

She has checked back with friends who stayed behind and believes she made the only decision she could, however hard. “The level of the water is so high now, people can swim,” she said.

Similar scenes were described in Antonivka, about 40 miles downstream from the destroyed dam.

One resident of the town, Hanna Zarudnia, 69, said she had spent the night in a basement bunker because of intense shelling. “About 10 houses were damaged,” she said. “Roofs were destroyed.”

Then a new horror took shape.

“Antonivka was surrounded by water from all sides, we were on an island,” she said. “I have pictures, videos: roads, a stadium, a school were flooded, everything came under water.”

Ukraine and Russia have each accused the other of blowing up the dam, a critical structure whose breach has put thousands of people downstream at risk.

Ms. Zarudnia scoffed at the notion that Ukraine blew up its own dam, and recalled that similar claims were made about attacks in Kherson, where she once lived under occupation. “I was a witness to that,” she said.

She has no doubt who was bombing her home week after week back then, she said, and none about who blew up the dam now.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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