June 18th – part 2

Добре день друзі,

I am writing from the patio of a church in Kherson. Artillery and rockets are landing in the city as is usual for Kherson. But life for the residents still here, as well as the hundreds of volunteers, goes on.

We left Odessa on Saturday morning…I think, and drove 3 hours back to Mikolaiev. I have never been on this highway but it reminded me a lot of Highway 101 in Central California. There was the coast of the Black Sea as well as lagoons and river mouths surrounded by low hills and sandy beaches. Unfortunately the beaches were littered with garbage from the flooding upstream and there is a no swimming, no fishing, no boating order in place due to deadly bacteria and pollution from the attack on the dam and the subsequent flooding.

Before we left Odessa we purchased about 300 liters of water in bottles to bring to a volunteer hub in Kherson. We also bought every box of canned meat we could find as well as vegetables. I really wanted to purchase dried food since it is convenient, but without water, it is pointless. Still, the high calorie Ramen style noodles are the perfect post apocalypse food. We packed the canned goods in ice and headed out. The weather here is Mississippi in the summer hot. A stark contrast to December and below 0 temps. We drove through Mikolaiev and onto Kherson.

In Kherson we went to the volunteer hub at the Church of Christ the Savior and met our contact Tanya. Tanya is the sister of another contact Stanislav, who is a friend of a woman Hymie knows in London. That is how contacts are made here.

Tanya speaks perfect English and we unloaded our supplies at the hub and all headed for the village of Oleksandrivka to look at a children’s communuty center project we are interested in supporting. Oleksandrivka has been decimated by artillery and missile strikes and barely any buildings stand without damage. Tania and her brother started a library there for the remaining 500 or so residents and the project has grown.

Unfortunately, even though we passed two checkpoints without issue, we were turned around at the last one because the area was too hot. The officer wanted to let us go, and made several calls to the higher ups, but it was still a no go. Holes made by mortars and artillery littered the highway, and for now, no non-Ukrainians are allowed in. Several weeks ago, two Italian journalists were killed and the Army doesn’t want that to happen on their watch again.

So we headed back and went with Tanya down to the center of Kherson so Rob could do an interview with her. We saw the administration building that had been seriously damaged just a few days after the last time I was here in December.

While we were there the pace of artillery picked up, as seems to be the case in the afternoons. My theory is that the Russians sober up around 1500 and start shelling the city for fun. We heard the distinct whine of a shell fly over our heads and land and explode couple streets down. And another which landed closer but didn’t explode.

Hymie and I were standing by the van, and I noticed a dark colored Skoda sedan parked behind a building with a driver visible. He began driving very slowly towards us. My creeper meter was increasing. He pulled onto the street and drove right next to us. I thought to myself, “here we go, we are going to get gunned down by some pro Russia sympathizer or collaborator.” There are many here, especially in this part of the country and the Ukrainian SBU actively hunts and arrests them. In the still occupied zones they will occasionally they will die Mossad style in exploding cars and booby trapped doors. There is an active resistance in these areas and they are slowly culling traitors.

He rolled his window down and asks us if we are journalists, we reply that no, we are volunteers. He then gets out of his car and opens the trunk. His face breaks into a huge smile as he pulls out a laege box of fresh cherries and hands them to me saying, “welcome to Kherson” then he gets in his car and drives away. Kherson region is known for fruit and vegetable farming. Or was, until the dam attack and flood This was typical Ukrainian hospitality and it never ceases to amaze me.

Rob and Tanya finished the interview and the drunk shelling seemed to be getting more frequent so we decided to call it a day and head back to the slightly safer accommodations in Mikolaiev. We followed Tanya out of town. She lives in the suburb of Chernobaivka, on the way to Mikolaiev. This village has been almost completely destroyed but her house is still inhabitable.

As we drove out down the main road which I call the Kherson mile of cars, we passed abandoned VW, Renault, Skoda, Range Rover and other car dealerships. The Russian officers stole all the cars and the show rooms are empty, boarded up or destroyed. An artillery shell landed about 75 meters to our left and Hymie punched the gas. As we watched the fire burning, another shell landed to our left in an old John Deere tractor facility. Thankfully these idiots are just wasting ammo that they will eventually need to defend the ongoing counterattack. But it is always a comfortable feeling to pass the Welcome to Kherson pavilion on the way out of town.

We arrived back to Mikolaiev and promptly went to a restaurant down the street from the hotel and had a much-needed beer.

More to follow