His mother Julia Nesterenko was happy to encourage the habit. “We even had a basketball hoop at home,” the 33-year-old told CNN as she described their first family home. It was their “nest,” she said, with a small garden and a vegetable garden.
It was time “to get out of the occupied territories to safety … to survive,” Julia said. The Russians had taken over their village, Verkhnii Rohachyk, and the Nesterenko family feared the consequences.
With nothing but a backpack and their important documents, the family took what appeared to be the easiest way out to Ukrainian-controlled areas, she said. On April 7, the family of three and 11 other people boarded an evacuation boat, powered by a local resident, and crossed the Dnipro River from the southern, Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region to the Ukrainian-controlled area on the other side of the river . The Dnipro, one of Europe’s longest waterways, cuts through Ukraine and its Kherson region before flowing into the Black Sea.
The boat crossing, which began on the shores of the fishing village of Pervomaivka, should have been simple. It was the seventh evacuation by boat from the village to an area on the north bank of the Dnipro River since the war began, according to Oleksandr Vilkul, head of Kryvyi Rih’s military administration, in the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region. .
Instead, it turned into a bloodbath, according to Julia, two other survivors, a friend of a victim and several regional officials. They described how Russian rockets and shots were fired at the boat after it inadvertently drifted into the front line.
Roman Shelest, head of the Kryvyi Rih Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office for Ukraine, told CNN that the boat drifted into the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces and was shelled 70 meters off the coast.
A survivor, who refused to be named due to security fears, explained that the boat disappeared in a smoke screen believed to have been created by the Russians. CNN has not been able to independently confirm this claim.
“This launch was made using a multiple rocket launch system, possibly Grad, but we would (only) be able to tell the exact type of weapon only after (the) forensic (investigation) is completed,” Shelest added.
One of the survivors also said he thought they were hit by Russian Grad rockets.
When the boat’s navigator indicated that the group was driven close to the Russian-controlled village of Osokorivka, the morning silence was quickly punctured by the sound of exploding rockets, survivors said.
Vladimir collapsed bleeding in Julia’s arms. “My husband behind me also fell on me when he was shot in the head,” Julia told CNN, her voice soft and monotonous, seemingly deprived of emotion after all she lost on that journey.
Four people were killed in the attack that day. Oleh was among three who died on the boat; Vladimir died shortly afterwards in a hospital. Another victim was a lawyer who had traveled into the Kherson region to rescue his son and provide humanitarian aid, the lawyer’s friend, Tatyana Denisenko, told CNN.
Pictures of the aftermath of the attack showed what looked like the remains of a rocket on the shore, and bullet and grenade shrapnel holes in the hull of the boat.
“Based on the grenades and ammunition we saw in the area and on the shoreline, we could see the direction of the shooting – which shows that (they) came from the southern direction, and that is the area occupied at this time and under the control of the armed forces in the Russian Federation, prosecutor Shelest, who is investigating the attack, told CNN.
Cherson in crisis
Kherson was one of the first cities the Russians conquered. Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev said people “actively” left Kherson and other cities in the predominantly Russian-occupied southern region after atrocities emerged from the Kyiv region, following the Kremlin’s rapid withdrawal from northern Ukraine.
“Cities will be empty,” he said on Tuesday as Russia resumed its offensive against Ukraine’s east. “It hurts me a lot when people leave Kherson. (By leaving their homes, people will never return home again,” he said.
Rumors are growing that a referendum will be held in the Russian-controlled areas of Kherson, especially in areas on the left bank of the Dnipro River, in an attempt to legitimize the illegal Russian land capture. A similar tactic unfolded in eastern Ukraine in 2014, with pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk holding referendums on the formation of “people’s republics”, in a vote rejected by Ukraine and the western countries as a hoax.
Ukrainians living on the left bank of the region have peacefully resisted the Russian occupation with demonstrations in Kherson and Kolykhayev, the mayor said on Tuesday. An earlier demonstration in Kherson saw Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accuse Russian forces of firing on unarmed people. “Russian soldiers do not even know what it is like to be free,” Oleh Baturin, a reporter for the local newspaper Novyi Den, who recently left the region, told CNN.
“For example, Kochubeivka, Novovorontsovka (where Osokorivka is located) and the Vysokopillia settlements – there are villages that died out in the first half of March and were totally looted and destroyed,” he said.
Only when the Russians leave will the full horror of the occupation emerge, Baturin predicted.
Three survivors described the trauma from the boat attack last week in interviews with CNN.
“It was so sudden that everyone was in shock,” one of the survivors told CNN. As the rockets hit the area, fragments began hitting the passengers, he said.
The survivor said he was spared injuries because he fell off the boat in the first moments of the bombing. “I was wearing such heavy boots that I was immediately pulled to the bottom (by the river). Then we heard (rockets) pouring in,” he said.
They were driven into an active front line that hugged the north coast around the village of Osokorivka. Ukrainian soldiers began shouting from the banks of the river, throwing their weapons to the ground and wading into the water to retrieve the boat and the civilians, the survivor said. It took up to 15 minutes to get them out of the water around the Novovorontsovka area. CNN geolocated images of the aftermath of that shoreline.
“Of course, our guys (Ukrainian military) helped … rush into the water and swim to the boat,” and pulled the boat to shore, the survivor said.
Julia said the shock of the moment and the ensuing trauma meant that her memory of the event was blurred. “I do not know why we were shot. We did not understand what the sounds were: bullets, shelling, explosions?” she said. “And I did not understand what was happening – I was just in a fog.”
She remembers soldiers carrying her husband’s body and “putting him on the beach.” Her son Vladimir was still alive but badly injured. “He was breathing, he had a serious head injury (and) lost a lot of blood. We took him 40 kilometers to the nearest hospital,” she said. “He was operated on. There was still hope that they could save him. But as the doctors later said, ‘it was an injury that was incompatible with life’.”
Maxim Kolomiyets, a powerful 37-year-old handyman, took the boat so he could get out of the region and join the Ukrainian army. He was knocked unconscious in the first moments of the shelling and woke up hours later in a hospital with a shrapnel wound in his left arm.
One day after the attack, on April 8, Lyudmila Denisova, human rights commissioner of the Ukrainian parliament, described the shelling of the boat as a “war crime and a crime against humanity” in a Facebook post. Vilkul, head of Kryvyi Rih’s military administration, told CNN that the Russians “are doing everything they can to keep civilians out of occupied territories. Because they are apparently afraid that these people will be able to tell something about their opinions.”
Julia now lives with relatives in a Ukrainian-controlled area where she buried her son and husband. She is in doubt as to what she should do next.
“We wanted this trip (to be) a chance to escape the occupation … For us, it was like a light at the end of the tunnel. For it was already unbearable for us to be where we were,” she said.
“This war has ruined my family, my life – and the killing of people must stop. Immediately. Because it (destroys) destiny, life.”
CNN’s Tara John reported and wrote from Lviv. Oleksandr Fylippov, Sandi Sidhu, Julia Presniakova reported from Lviv. Nathan Hodge, Julia Kesaieva and Olga Voitovych contributed to this piece.