30 Minutes Away from the Invading Russian Army

A story from Ukraine’s Mykolaiv, a city under constant Russian fire.

“There are bombings, but we keep on living. We move forward.”

This is Yuriy Lubarov, a Mykolaiv local. His home town, a port city in Southern Ukraine, is shelled almost daily by Russian rockets. The city administration, hospitals, schools, and residential areas have all fallen victim to regular attacks.

“We try to get out of Mykolaiv for the night to get some sleep,” Yuriy said, “We drive 10 minutes away from the city in the evening, stay in a friend’s house, and head to Mykolaiv in the morning. We get some illusion of safety this way.”

“Although only the day before, neighboring houses got bombed,” the man continued, “Eight buildings are gone. There was nothing military in the area. Russians just hit whenever. It is an illusion of safety, not real safety.”

“That’s how we live,” he said.

“THE CITY GOES ON”

Mykolaiv, an important port city in the South, is only 30 minutes away from the current frontline. A neighboring region, Kherson, has been under Russian occupation for months, so Mykolaiv is a nearby target for the Russian troops stationed there. There are also regular missile attacks from the occupied Crimean peninsula.

As you walk the streets of Mykolaiv, you can spot remnants of the rockets from the most recent attacks, and occasional holes in the ground where they have been removed. There are some damaged buildings, too, which stand in great contrast to the lively streets. Some areas have only recently been cleared of rubble or the corpses of the victims of the shelling.

Despite the risks, many locals choose to remain.

“According to the city mayor, there are around 200,000 residents left,” Yuriy said, “It’s about 40% because pre-war, we had around half a million people.”

The city streets are busy during the day. People walk, shop, and receive or deliver humanitarian aid. People can get free bread and some canned foods, and there are also people queuing on the streets to get water.

“The city has everything besides drinking water and jobs. There is even gas,” Yuriy said, with a sad smile. He was referring to the shortage of fuel Ukraine experienced in March and April when Russia targeted many gas storage facilities. Now, there is plenty of fuel, so people do not worry about potential shortages.

“There is life in the city, but it is not productive. There are no jobs,” the man explained, “There are some people who work, doing things like taking care of city infrastructure, transport, and so on, but the majority of the people don’t work, have unpaid vacations, or wait for their jobs to resume.”

Most children left the city with their families. Only around 20% of Mykolaiv children are still in the city and plan to enroll in school online in the fall. Youth will not be able to attend schools in Mykolaiv in person because of the danger.

“It’s hard to predict how many children will remain until September, and how schools and other institutions will work next semester,” Yuriy said, “We just don’t know.” But in any case, for the former math teacher, virtual education is no substitute.  “This is not real education,” he said, “Education is social, it is about real communication between children and the teacher. Few children can study music — or anything — this way.”

Yuriy works as the head of the Department of Culture and Protection of Cultural Heritage of Mukolaiv City Council. His job, he explained, makes little sense now because most of his tasks are impossible due to war. “It is difficult to work when you don’t know what to do,” said, “On one hand, nothing changed in terms of bureaucracy. The farther people are from the front line, the less they understand that. It is funny when you have to provide reports on the things which you cannot organize in the city at the moment, like celebrations or holidays.”

“Our job is people, working with the public, and staging mass events,” he continued, “When there is none of that, then there is little work for us to do.” However, he proceeded, locals should remain employed despite the closures. “We cannot just fire people,” he said, “There is no legal or ethical way to do that. People cannot starve to death because they are heads of dance groups and choose to remain in Mykolaiv” in this troubled season without cultural performances.

Besides, he continued, “there are still people who remain in Mykolaiv. More than half of the city libraries are open, and locals go there, not only for bread but also to get books and newspapers. People keep on reading despite everything.”

Libraries and schools as well as other public spots are where people can get free bread now— distributing the food is a new job responsibility for librarians and other employees.

WATER CRISIS

The city’s water infrastructure has been damaged by the constant shelling, and the occupation of Kherson has cut the city’s supplies. Locals now fill big bottles and trolleys at 40  drinking water stations around the city or get their water from trams and trolleybuses that deliver it. “So you see, we’ve got many reasons to liberate Kherson, and getting back the water is one of them,” Yuriy said, half-jokingly. In the early months of the war, locals had no water at all, so the city shared water from a nearby estuary. That water couldn’t be used for cooking or drinking, but it worked for everything else. “It was very difficult when we didn’t have any water in the sink,” Yuriy recalled, “But luckily, it was for only one month. The city managed. Mykolaiv is a peninsula: we have water in three directions so it is impossible to die from thirst here.”

“Soon, it will be six months of war. You get used to some things, but you cannot get used to everything.”

For locals, drinking water will be possible only after the liberation of Kherson. The issue is not unusual across the country: many Ukrainian cities have only recently resumed drinking water access. Mykolaiv is less fortunate, though: the water from the estuary is very salty, and it is damaging an already vulnerable water system. Pipes burst regularly.

“Other than that, I am happy we have water,” Yuriy smiled.

WAITING FOR VICTORY

“I thought about leaving Mykolaiv, especially when on Feb. 24, at dawn, Russians started bombing our aerodrome,” Yuriy recalled, “I could leave given that I already signed the document to quit my job. But the city did not let me go, and I decided to stay. That is why I am here.”

The administrator had decided to leave his job two weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. For Yuriy, the decision seemed logical: after five years as a public servant, he was looking for a change. He recalled that becoming a freelancer was one of the options. On Feb. 14, he started what he thought would be his last vacation on the old job, and on March 1, he was supposed to pick up his unemployment documents.

“But then, the war started,” Yuriy said, “So on February 24, I was told:  ‘Now, you have to stay with us because most employees have already left.’” So I felt I had to remain and work.”

For the first three months of the full-scale invasion, he and his family lived in a basement. “It was warm, and we had a mattress there, but it was still a basement,” Yuriy said, half-smiling, “You cannot stay there forever.”

Now, the family leaves town for the night to sleep in the relative safety of the nearby suburbs. In the morning, they drive back to work in Mykolaiv. People who cannot travel like this often sleep in basements during the night or stay in windowless rooms, corridors, or bathrooms to safeguard against constant attacks.

“If you can travel outside of the city, why not do it?” Yuriy asked.

“People want victory, and as soon as possible,” he continued, “Life is hard now, families are torn with some residents staying here, and some leaving. Soon, it will be six months of war. You get used to some things, but you cannot get used to everything.”

“I have some defenses that help me,” Yuriy added, “Family, friends, hobbies which I had before the war. I try to keep them up to go on so I don’t postpone living. You cannot postpone life because there is no such thing as later. This is how life is right now. I have a choice. I can stay. I can leave. I can be nervous, or I can be calm. I choose not to be nervous, to act, to live.”

“Luckily, I have a job, I volunteer, so I do not have a lot of time to reflect too much,” he concluded, “The rest of my free time I spend traveling outside the city for the night. I hope to sleep well at night so I do not wake up every hour to run to the bomb shelter.”

Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine.