Freaking Out In Kherson City
Day 1 – June 17th, 2023

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Rob in front of a building

Day 1 – June 17th, 2023

Kherson City, Kherson Oblast, Ukraine (Five Miles from the Front)

I woke up early in Odessa and went for a run by the harbor, primarily inactive because it’s been mined by Russians (who don’t bother to map the locations) and Ukrainians (who map the sites, as is typical protocol).

I returned to film a short interview with Mark Cary (retired U.S. Marine and Border Patrol Officer turned humanitarian) and Hymie Dunn (British art world professional turned humanitarian), my travel mates. We then took off to buy food, water, and supplies for the flood victims of Kherson from the Russian explosion of the Kakhovka Dam 11 days earlier.

On the way, we had a quick stop at the Wog (Like a 7/11 in the States) for food (Mark is a fan of the Wog-dog, a Ukrainian hot dog kind of thing) and fuel. Mark gave a badass-looking Ukrainian soldier a morale bag full of power bars, chocolate, and other treats. The soldier, in return, gave Mark his regiment patch.

We made our way through Mykolaiv, past a checkpoint, to Kherson.

Hymie checks an app to see where missiles are falling while Mark drives. I’m in the back seat. Roads are rough. Sleep is impossible. My nerves are wound tight. Hymie and Mark seem almost giddy.

After entering the Kherson checkpoint, everyone sobered up. We pulled over to put on our body armor. Mark had to help me with mine, as I had the plates backward. He also helped place and adjust the padding in the helmet to ensure it fits. Next, he gave Hymie and me a quick lesson on putting on a tourniquet in case any of us were blown up.

That’s precisely the moment I began getting a little more nervous.

We made our way to the Baptist Church of Christ the Savior to meet Tania, the sister of Stanislav, a contact of Hymie’s, to drop off food and 246 liters of water. Tania spoke English and graciously toured us around the Church, which has a deep-water well where anyone can access clean water, lacking since the Russians blew up the Kakhovka Dam.

We visited the basement of the Church where Tania said over 500 people had lived during the occupation and still came to escape bombings on occasion. Even after liberation by the Ukrainian military, Kherson is only five miles from the front and under constant bombardment. Now, it was full of beds where volunteers were sleeping. Most were out clearing mud and debris in villages on this scorching day. Still, I managed to meet one from New Jersey, call-sign “Jersey,” who had signed up for the Legion and was now volunteering. I’d interview him the next day.

Our mission was for Tania to take us to the remote and cut-off village of Oleksandrivka, and this road was the only way. Russians can bomb it at will, apparently, and there were checkpoints all along the way. We could see and smell the post-flood residue. The smell was indescribable. It was eerie driving on a road we knew the Russians were monitoring. We were being watched.

When we arrived at the 3rd checkpoint, the man in charge saw my camera and asked if I was a journalist. I was in the front passenger side (on the left in Hymie’s van designed for British roads with steering on the right) and interacting with the officer while Tania, translating for us, was in the back seat trying to clear the way.

After several tense minutes, he turned us back to the previous checkpoint, where a polite but stern Ukrainian policeman greeted us. I showed my journalist badge and learned it was now outdated, which makes sense since it was issued at the beginning of the invasion over a year ago. We heard shelling in the background. The soldiers manning the checkpoint seemed alert but largely unconcerned.

We were eventually turned away and sent back to Kherson City. Authorities are being super careful with foreign journalists and volunteers after an Italian journalist was killed just a few days before our visit. Though Tania and the gang tried to comfort me, telling me all foreigners were not allowed (apparently, a foreign corpse is a big hassle to repatriate), including volunteers.

Still, I felt disappointed and maybe just a little relieved. When the military and police are so concerned, I get concerned. They were very professional and polite and seemed genuinely concerned for our safety, not just their careers. This is why I love Ukraine. In a war of good vs. evil, it feels “GOOD.” It feels like the USA once felt… when people trusted in each other’s goodness and rules, and laws were followed. People talk a lot about corruption in Ukraine, but I’ve never experienced it. If they are faking virtue, they are doing an excellent job.

After returning to the Church, I ventured across the road to see an apartment bombed by the Russians. I saw someone living directly one floor above the bombed apartment looking out of the balcony at the gawking body armored foreigner filming their home.

I waved, but they didn’t wave back. The town is down to about 20% of its pre-war population and has an apocalyptic ghost town feel. Two zombies (drunken or shell-shocked men) wandered over, asking for food and money. I directed them to church.

In addition to Jersey, I met some other volunteers from the U.S., most affiliated with some religious outfit or other. They were from Ocala, Florida, Sacramento, and a solo Slovakian who had lived briefly in Detroit.

We then drove with Tania to see an administrative building bombed downtown. As Tania and I conducted the interview, munitions exploded and seemed to get closer. She didn’t twitch. I was a bundle of nerves. Finally, it felt like we’d been there too long, and Mark and Hymie urged us back to the van. But before departing, they shared a story of a strange man in a black car giving Hymie and Mark a big box of cherries as a thank you after he found out they were American and British volunteers. He never smiled until the end, which is the stoic Slavic way, or so it seems.

As Hymie rearranged the van, we heard a whistle overhead, and Mark jumped for cover, so I did as well. Tania again didn’t flinch much, and Hymie was busy talking and apparently didn’t even hear it. We never heard the explosion, so it may have just sailed close by overhead or, more likely, was a dud and didn’t explode on impact.

Whatever… it was high time to high tail it back to Mykolaiv, the town next door where things were mainly out of reach of artillery fire (but more expensive missiles could reach that far) and thus a much safer spot to lay our heads.

Kherson City with smoke

But driving rapidly out of town, two recent hits were smoking, and one to the left was far too close for comfort. I let out an expletive-laced tirade that I have on video that will be just one long “BLEEEEEEPITY BLEEEP BLEEP What the BLEEP? That was close as BLEEEP! Let’s get the BLEEEPITY BLEEP BLEEP out of here now” if it ever makes it to the show. However, I am happy to report I did not need a change of underwear, which was a genuine concern when dressing that morning, not being facetious.

We sped back to the relative safety of Mykolaiv as Mark explained why Kherson was getting bombarded and Mykolaiv wasn’t. Kherson is just five miles from the front and thus in the range of cheaper artillery. At the same time, Mykolaiv would require more expensive artillery, such as drones or missiles.

The artillery targeted at Kherson seems to be shot randomly. Not military targeting at all, according to Mark. His theory is the bombing heats up in the afternoon after the drunk Russian soldiers get over their hangover, get bored, and decide to terrorize the remaining citizens and volunteers of Kherson by firing off random munitions. One is still dead or injured whether artillery hits one on purpose or by mistake.

Indeed, we read the next day that the gas station we passed was bombed that night, and children in a nearby village were severely injured. Children are a common military target for Putin’s Russia, as he’s nearly murdered 1,000 since the beginning of the war, most in their homes, in their own country, Ukraine, which is not a part of Russia, not a buffer zone, and no, not NATO or even the E.U. But it is a place where people adore freedom, and thus, that makes Ukrainians Putin’s enemy, no matter their age.

Kherson City rubble