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Zelensky Visits Kherson, and Russia Shells Flooded City

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine visited the flood-stricken city of Kherson on Thursday, trying to rally the region’s emergency workers, who were struggling under Russian artillery fire to evacuate thousands of people from cities and settlements left submerged by the destruction of a major dam this week.

Even as rescue workers took boats through flooded streets to get people to safety, Russian forces assailed the city on Thursday afternoon. Shelling struck near an evacuation point at the heart of Kherson, close to where Mr. Zelensky had stood hours earlier, and sent hundreds of people ducking for cover in floodwaters that have loosed land mines and mixed with toxic material.

“There was nowhere to hide,” said Serhiy Ludensky, a volunteer from an animal care center, who was on a boat near a flooded square when the shelling struck. The people on the boat managed to break down the door of a flooded dormitory to take shelter there until the explosions stopped. He said he could hear people screaming.

The monthslong bombardment of Kherson, which Russian soldiers once occupied in southern Ukraine, has not let up since an explosion on Tuesday at the Kakhovka dam, up the Dnipro River.

The blast sent a torrent of water downriver, lifting cars, beds and entire houses out toward the Black Sea. The flooding has swamped a huge area on both sides of the Dnipro, affecting tens of thousands of people across an active war zone that cuts through Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled territory.

“I just saw cars, horses, cows were floating,” said Mykola Shuliuk, 68, who had helped clean up fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. “It’s a horror.”

Mr. Shuliuk, who lives in a coastal village in the neighboring Mykolaiv region, said that the effects of the disaster would only worsen in the coming days. “This is a catastrophe not only for us,” he said, “but for the whole world.”

Mr. Zelensky was visiting Kherson on Thursday to see the damage, and to stress his appeal for “a clear and quick global response” to help the population.

A night earlier, he had criticized international agencies that have not acted since the explosion at the dam, which Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for causing. Engineering experts have said the blast was most likely caused by an explosion inside the structure, which was controlled by Russian forces.

“Every death over there marks an indictment of the existing international mosaic, of international organizations which have gotten out of the habit of saving lives,” Mr. Zelensky said.

President Emmanuel Macron of France spoke with the Ukrainian leader on Wednesday and said that his country would send aid “very quickly,” including a first convoy of around 10 tons of supplies, like water purification tools and portable cisterns.

But aid workers have said that the active fighting in the region has created huge hurdles to delivering help, already difficult because of the flooding itself. At least one aid group, CARE, said that its team had been forced to briefly retreat from Kherson because of increased shelling and artillery attacks in the city.

The Ukrainian and Russian-backed authorities have reported that several thousand people have been evacuated from parts of the flood zone, but in interviews, residents on the eastern side contradicted Russian claims and described chaos and intimidation on the Russian-controlled bank.

And the reported number of people brought to safety remains a small fraction of the tens of thousands that Ukraine estimates are at risk of flood dangers, like unsafe drinking water and collapsing structures.

Some people in occupied areas along the eastern side of the river are using the confusion to escape to the Ukrainian-controlled bank. But some Ukrainians expressed fear that Russian leaders, who have been accused of war crimes in the abduction of Ukrainian children, would use the flooding as a justification to relocate more of them.

Russia has acknowledged moving children, but has maintained it did so for humanitarian purposes. This week, Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed governor in occupied Kherson, said on Telegram that it was “practically a requirement” after the flooding that children be taken deeper into Russian-controlled land.

“Under the pretext of ‘rescue,’ they are separating children from their parents, manipulating human tragedy,” said Mykola Kuleba, the founder of a charity called Save the Children. “It is extremely difficult to trace their fate in the flooded territory.”

Selena Kozakijevic, CARE’s Ukraine area manager, said the situation in the region was severe. Not only have many people lost access to clean drinking water — with contamination threatened by oil leaks, landfills and latrines — but volunteers and residents also face deadly hazards, like land mines, dispersed by the flooding.

“There is a high possibility of these unexploded ordinances floating around and landing in new unknown, unmapped areas,” she said. Still, she added, many residents were refusing to leave even when their homes were flooded. “This is a population that has been there since the start of the conflict,” she said.

The Ukrainian and Russian authorities on both sides of the Dnipro have reported several deaths attributed to the flooding. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said it did not immediately have information about any deaths in the shelling on Thursday, but said that the nine people injured included two emergency workers and a police officer.

Andriy, a Ukrainian soldier who gave only his first name, said he had been unable to reach his father, who is living under Russian occupation in Nova Kakhovka, a city adjacent to the dam.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “I can’t even watch the videos. The House of Culture, the zoo, the river bank where the college graduates used to celebrate the last day of studies around this time of the year — all are under the water.”

In Kherson, volunteers, medics and rescue teams have been meeting on higher ground near a landmark city square, which is flooded but is being used as an evacuation point because it is well known. Outside the city, Ukrainians have watched as their own homes and those around them are dismantled by the flooding.

“Everything washes by,” said Natalia Kamenetska, who lives on a bluff overlooking the Dnipro River, around 60 miles downstream from the ruined dam.

Her village, Stanislav, was under Russian occupation until last fall. It has been bombarded repeatedly by Russian forces since then, and evidence of the fighting is all around her. Burned-out tanks and armored vehicles line the road. Just outside the village, the tail of an unexploded S-300 Russian missile rises out of a green lagoon. Another missile is embedded in a field of red poppies and wildflowers.

But it was not an explosion that awoke Ms. Kamenetska on Wednesday. It was her husband, who pointed out the window at a house floating past. By Wednesday afternoon, a dozen houses dislodged by flooding could be seen.

Before the war, she said, the river brought communities together as a common source of food and recreation. Now, it is a front line that divides friends and families.

“For me, it’s despair that we can’t help people who have been waiting there,” Ms. Kamenetska said, referring to those stranded on the Russian-controlled side. “They were waiting for liberation, but now they’re suffering.”

Reporting was contributed by Brendan Hoffman, Evelina Riabenko, Anna Lukinova, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Aurelien Breeden, Cora Engelbrecht, Emma Bubola and David Kurkovskiy.

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