“In mid-October, Natalia Pitaichuk made the heart-wrenching decision to evacuate her family from their cherished home in Beryslav, located in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson. Tragically, just two days after their departure, their house fell victim to a devastating Russian airstrike.
Natalia recounted her life-altering decision, “If we hadn’t evacuated, we would have been dead. It was as if the heavens themselves were urging me to take my children away from harm’s way.”
The choice to leave had not come lightly. Natalia had endured the challenging circumstances of living through nine months of Russian occupation in the Kherson region. Her family’s home had been subjected to intrusive searches, and Russian soldiers patrolled the streets, detaining men of fighting age. She had endured the anxiety of Russian shelling even after the initial jubilation of liberation in November 2022. “It was frightening, but we managed to bear it,” she reflected.
However, the past month had brought unbearable hardship. An ominous Russian strike had targeted the hospital where Natalia worked. She vividly recalled the terrifying moment when hospital staff sought refuge in the basement and emerged covered in dust when the all-clear signal was given. Tragically, two people had been injured during this harrowing attack.
Natalia expressed the overwhelming devastation of her surroundings, saying, “The hospital where I worked was reduced to ruins, the kindergarten was obliterated, and everything lay in ruins. That’s when I made the decision to leave with my children. And, tragically, just two days later, our home was struck.” It’s important to note that Russian forces have been consistently targeting the western bank of the Dnipro River, where Kherson City and Beryslav are located, ever since Ukraine regained control of the area a year ago.
According to Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesperson for the Kherson Region Military Administration, the Russian assaults had intensified significantly. He stated, “Almost every hour, Su-34 and Su-35 planes are coming in to strike and directing these guided bombs at various settlements.” These guided munitions, with their high explosive loads, were being released by Russian warplanes beyond the reach of air defenses.
Over the past week, the liberated part of Kherson had witnessed a daily toll from Russian attacks, with at least one fatality each day. Tolokonnikov explained, “If a month and a half ago, we experienced 300-350 shells and two to three bombs a day, which we thought was already excessive, now it has surged to 750 shells a day. The number of bombs has increased manyfold.” These relentless attacks seemed to be aimed at obstructing Ukrainian efforts to establish a presence on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, within the Russian-occupied eastern part of Kherson region.
The bulk of the Ukrainian military had concentrated on the front lines leading to the Sea of Azov in the Zaporizhzhia region to the east of Kherson. Nevertheless, small cross-river raids by Ukraine had kept Russian forces occupied, preventing them from diverting reinforcements elsewhere along the 1,300-kilometer-long frontline.
Analysts had pointed out that if Ukraine managed to secure a strong foothold on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, it could pose a greater risk to targets in occupied Crimea and place additional pressure on the already strained Russian logistical routes.
Ihor Chornyi, a volunteer with the organization “Strong Because We Are Free,” had been assisting civilians in leaving the area since it was liberated. He expressed the gravity of the situation, saying, “It’s not just mortar or tank shelling like we used to have; it’s (the guided) glide bombs that destroy everything when they hit. Children are losing their lives, and mandatory evacuations are taking place because villages are being razed to the ground.”
The collapse of the Russian-controlled Nova Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River in June had resulted in dozens of casualties, destroyed villages, and a shift in the battlefield conditions. The floodwaters had temporarily halted Ukrainian efforts to cross the river.
As the waters receded and the situation stabilized, Ukraine had renewed its endeavors. In mid-October, a daring Ukrainian cross-river raid had managed to infiltrate temporarily the occupied villages on the eastern bank of the river, which was a significant development.
Tolokonnikov suggested that the Russians on the eastern bank were anxious about the possibility of Ukrainian forces crossing the river and reclaiming the territory. “In this way, they are simply warning and intimidating the population and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, indicating that they are prepared to destroy and kill if we attempt to liberate the eastern bank.”
Since the issuance of mandatory evacuation orders on October 23 for children in 23 settlements in the Kherson region, approximately 300 children and their families had been relocated to safety, while 497 children were still awaiting their chance to escape, according to local officials.
However, even evacuating people to safety had become fraught with danger in the face of the recent wave of attacks. Ihor Chornyi stated, “Evacuation missions are becoming more perilous. We have experienced situations where we gathered people, began moving them, and came under fire. Fortunately, they missed us.”
For Natalia Pitaichuk and her family, they had found refuge in the Kirovohrad region of central Ukraine. After two weeks of residing in their new, temporary home without the daily terror of shelling, her children, whose ages ranged from 5 to 14, were finally beginning to experience a sense of security. Nonetheless, as Natalia revealed, the trauma of the past had left a lasting impact on their young minds. She explained, “Whenever they see Ukrainian fighters or helicopters in the sky, the children become frightened and ask if they will be bombed.” The resilient spirit of these families amid adversity underscored the ongoing challenges in the region and the urgent need for a peaceful resolution.”