Strategic ‘hero city’ in Ukraine keeping Russian troops at bay is shell of former self

Maryna Perepilitsyna sits propped up in a hospital bed in the centre of Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, where she can clearly hear the sound of shelling in the city outside.

It’s not close, but it still makes her shudder.

“I’m scared when I hear certain sounds,” she told CBC News earlier this week. “They offered for me to go for a walk, just in the open air. Of course I fear it very much.”

The 59-year-old bookkeeper was waiting in line for a supermarket to open on March 14 when a Russian shell landed nearby, sending shrapnel through her leg.

She’s been in hospital ever since and has had two of three planned operations.

The woman in the bed next to her, Galina Knyazeva, shared a similar experience in early April.

Galina Knyazeva, a victim of an explosion in early April, is shown in her hospital bed in Mykolaiv. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the hospital has treated civilians and soldiers from the front line. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

“Nothing complicated,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. “Just an explosion. People were falling on you. I didn’t have time to be frightened.”

The two women are squeezed into a room with six other patients and barely enough room to walk between the beds.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the hospital — which can’t be named for security reasons — has become a way station for injured soldiers from the front line and civilians who find their lives altered in the blink of an eye.

“Just abruptly. Everything changes,” Knyazeva said.

Mykolaiv awarded honorary title of ‘hero city’

The Mykolaiv region now borders Russian occupied territory to the southeast, in the Kherson region or oblast. On March 2, the city of Kherson was the first major metropolis to be captured by the Russians.

Mykolaiv is an old ship-building city, the capital of the region of the same name. Its defenders now stand between those Russian troops and the strategic port city of Odesa to the west, hemmed in by a Russian naval blockade.

The widely accepted consensus is that Russia would not be able to launch an amphibious assault on Odesa unless it was backed up by ground troops via Kherson and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Rescuers extinguish a fire at a meat production facility in the aftermath of an attack as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, at a location given as Mykolaiv, in this still image obtained from a handout video released on May 30. (State Emergency Services of Ukraine/Handout/Reuters)

Ukrainian military analysts believe one of Russia’s main objectives is to create a complete land corridor along southern Ukraine, all the way to Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region in Moldova.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded Mykolaiv the honorary title of “hero city” on March 25 in recognition of its role in keeping the Russians at bay.

“In March the enemy was in three directions — from northwest, northeast and south — so now it’s like on vacation,” Vitaly Kim, head of the Mykolaiv Regional Administration, said in an interview with CBC News.

“For now we have [Russian troops only] in the direction to the southeast.”

Vitaly Kim, head of the Mykolaiv Regional Administration, escaped an airstrike on his office building in March because he was late for work. He’s won praise for his laid-back manner and early efforts to reassure the public when war broke out. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Kim has become a local hero for his laid-back manner and early efforts to reassure the public after Russia arrived in the neighbourhood.

He delivered almost daily messages on social media and, like others here, refers to Russian soldiers as “Orcs” — the brutish creatures envisioned by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Kim also escaped an airstrike on his office building in March because he was late for work. The building was cut in two, slicing through offices and leaving desks and chairs dangling.

Workers clean the area outside the regional government headquarters of Mykolaiv on May 14. The building was heavily damaged in a Russian attack in March, killing at least 37 people and injuring 34. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

At least 37 people were killed and 34 injured. Today, Kim carries a pistol tucked into his trousers and keeps his movements guarded.

Ukrainian troops may have pushed the Russians back from the outskirts of Mykolaiv, but the city still endures regular shelling by Russian troops employing weapons with a much longer reach than those currently available to the Ukrainians.

War has left residents without drinking water

The city’s drinking water has also been knocked out by the fighting, with residents now relying on newly dug wells or water trucked in from Odesa since April.

There aren’t many crowds left in the city, but when there are, they’re usually lining up at the trucks, plastic containers in hand.

“There’s no water in the tap and our government, our mayor, supplies clean water like this,” a woman named Maryna said, venturing out after a day of particularly heavy shelling.

A woman named Maryna lines up for water in Mykolaiv this week. The city’s drinking water was knocked out by fighting, leaving residents to rely on newly dug wells or water trucked in from Odesa since April. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

“We are patient,” she said. “We are told when the attack is coming and then we go into the bomb shelter and try to hide. Life goes on. We hope that this will finish soon. We trust our military and we believe that God will help them.”

Local officials estimate that just 200,000 people out of a population of 500,000 before the war have stayed in Mykolaiv. Parts of the city feel like a ghost town, with shops boarded up and streets sometimes filled with the wail of air-raid sirens and little else.

But some people have also returned, according to Kim, tired of living like refugees. He advises against it.

“It’s not the right time just now,” he said. “So my advice is not to come back till two or three weeks to see what will be on the front line.”

People holding containers line up in Mykolaiv for drinking water this week. Local officials estimate that just 200,000 people out of a population of 500,000 before the war have stayed in the city. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Kim won’t be drawn in on what that might imply for any future military operations.

“We’re waiting for help from our partners from abroad,” he said, a reference to long-promised weaponry from partner countries. “Our military forces say they’re in active defence, and that’s all I can say.”

They’re also waiting for the outcome of the fierce battle taking place in the Donbas region to the east, Ukraine’s industrial heartland where the Russians are said to be making slow but steady gains.

“Because after the Donbas, everybody will be planning next step,” Kim said.

Planning is something shelling victims Maryna Perepilitsyna and Galina Knyazeva have been unable to do for a while now. They have, though, had plenty of time to think.

“Life is the main thing a person possesses,” Perepilitsyna said. “The most precious thing. I have no mercy” for those who kill.

WATCH | Residents of Mykolaiv live on the edge of Russian invasion:

Mykolaiv residents on the razor’s edge of Russia’s invasion

For the past three months, the city of Mykolaiv has stood as a barrier between Russian troops in Ukraine’s east and cities like Odesa in the west. Residents are patient, live on the razor’s edge.

Knyazeva is struggling to comprehend how something like what is now happening to Ukraine can actually be real.

“How can people kill other people,” she said. “I don’t understand. Children, elderly people who didn’t do anything wrong to them.”

Despite their injuries and the ongoing war, both women say they won’t leave Mykolaiv when they’re finally released from hospital.

“I don’t like to run away,” Knyazeva said.

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