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Ukraine: ‘There was some news that the Russians had blown up the dam. I thought it was a joke’

Anton was in hiding in occupied Oleshky when the Dnipro river flooded and he fled with his grandmother

The destruction of the huge Kakhovka dam this month killed dozens of people and drove thousands from their homes in southeastern Ukraine. From the catastrophic flooding of the Dnipro river, however, a few grabbed a risky chance to flee Russian occupation.

The lucky ones include Anton, a former police patrolman in the riverside city of Kherson, who with his grandmother Emilia and a family friend not only escaped the flood and Russian control, but also avoided the fate of at least three locals who were killed when Moscow’s troops fired at the rescue boat ferrying them over the Dnipro.

It was not the first dangerous moment of the war for Anton, who does not want his surname to be published. He was working in Kherson when it was occupied by Russians troops in early March last year and, as some police officers switched sides, he and other loyal colleagues covertly reported to Ukraine’s military and other security services on the positions and movements of Moscow’s military and local collaborators.

Soon Russia’s FSB security service was looking for Anton in Oleshky, which is across from Kherson on the eastern bank of the Dnipro. It is his hometown, official place of residence and where, after 15 often nightmarish months, the raging river would help carry him back to Ukrainian-held land – and towards a reunion with his son, Mark (6), who with his mother has found refuge from Russia’s invasion in Cork.


In the Kherson region, which spans the Dnipro on its approach to the Black Sea, Russia found some officials who were ready to collaborate and facilitate its occupation, but also widespread public resentment and angry street protests under the blue-and-yellow banner of Ukraine.

A loosely connected “partisan” network of people from myriad backgrounds, including Anton and other former police officers, became Kyiv’s eyes and ears in Russian-held territory, providing information that its security services used to undermine and sabotage the occupation and plan attacks on Russian troops and their local allies.

“I was given the task of recruiting other people to our side, including police officers who were still in Kherson. I approached a former partner of mine in the police whom I trusted, but as it turned out he was already in contact with the FSB and trying to get himself a job in the Russian police force, and he told the Russians where I was,” Anton says.

“On August 15th last year this guy called and told me to come out to his car to collect something that he’d brought for me. That’s when they took me.”

Anton (29) was taken to one of many detention centres in occupied Kherson where Ukrainian investigators and international human rights groups say Russians abused and tortured captives. Moscow denies the allegations.

“They tried to beat information out of me ... They used electric cattle prods, sometimes three or four at a time. And they hit me with batons, punches and kicks, and put a cloth over my face and poured water on me,” he says, describing the suffocation technique known as waterboarding.

“They were Russian FSB and police. And there was one collaborator who I used to work with, I knew his face. He was also there during the beatings.”

On the battlefield, meanwhile, Ukraine was advancing south towards Kherson behind an arsenal strengthened by longer-range missile systems sent by Western allies, including the US-made Himars. In November Russian forces abandoned Kherson city and the western side of the Dnipro and focused on defending their positions on the eastern bank.

Anton and other captives were taken across the river in prison trucks and he was held in the town of Hola Prystan and then in Chaplynka, closer to occupied Crimea, before being released on December 6th.

Like many other Ukrainians held by the Russians in occupied territory, he can only guess at why they abruptly decided to let him go.

“I think it was because they couldn’t get anything out of me and couldn’t prove anything against me. Some other members of our partisan network are still being held in Crimea, some are being put on trial and others have also been released,” Anton says.

On the second day the Russians allowed locals to use their own boats to help people, but they did nothing themselves – they just sailed by and ignored people who needed help, people sitting on rooftops, as if they didn’t exist

He found himself back in Oleshky. But the Russians had not returned his phone, money or identity documents – he was carrying a fake passport when detained – and he knew that without them he would be arrested again at the first checkpoint he encountered. He would have to wait for Ukraine to liberate the left bank of the Dnipro or for some other, unforeseeable chance to escape to Kyiv-controlled territory.

“I hid with the help of relatives in Oleshky and hardly ever went outside. My grandmother Emilia brought food for me,” Anton says, describing the harried existence he was enduring when, in the early hours of June 6th, he heard that something had happened about 60km upriver at the immense Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station.

“At about 3am there was some news that the Russians had blown up the dam. I thought it was a joke but then I managed to access Ukrainian news websites and saw it was true. So I checked topographical maps of Oleshky to find its higher areas, because where I was at the time would soon be under 6m of water.”

Moscow claims Kyiv’s forces breached the Soviet-built dam but international experts say by far the most likely cause of the disaster was an explosion from inside the Russian-controlled facility, which was holding back some 18 billion cubic metres of water. The flood hinders Ukraine’s bid to retake more of Kherson region during its counteroffensive.

The water level in Oleshky began rising within hours and by the next day Anton’s hiding place was flooded. He saw on social media that Ukrainian volunteers with boats were trying to arrange evacuations from the occupied eastern bank of the river, and knew that Russian troops in the town were doing nothing to help locals find safety.

“On the second day the Russians allowed locals to use their own boats to help people, but they did nothing themselves – they just sailed by and ignored people who needed help, people sitting on rooftops, as if they didn’t exist,” Anton says.

“They also confiscated many boats and banned the use of bigger boats with strong engines ... People could use small boats with weak engines in the town but not go outside its limits, and they closed the two main roads out of town.”

“Russian troops would sail up to stranded people and ask if they had kids. If not, then the next question was whether they had Russian passports. If they didn’t, then they would offer to help for money – I was told a figure of $1,500 or $2,000 by different people. And if you had no money, then you would just have to stay there. The Russian soldiers also offered to sell food and water to people – if you wanted a drink then you had to buy it.”

The Kremlin denies such allegations and insists it did everything possible to help people in the flood zone. However, Denise Brown, United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator for Ukraine, said Russia had “declined our request to access the areas under its temporary military control ... Aid cannot be denied to people who need it.”

Russian troops also fired at boats evacuating people from the eastern bank, killing three people and injuring 10 in one such incident.

The chaos in Oleshky allowed Anton to move around with caution, and he found an inflatable boat that could serve as an escape craft. Contacts on the western bank of the Dnipro gave him co-ordinates for a place where the Ukrainian military could evacuate him, but he would have to make his own way there – some 7.5km through the flooded town.

On June 9th Anton and a family friend at the oars, with Emilia as a passenger in the small boat, navigated past submerged houses, trees, power lines and floating debris.

“We were all scared, the current was extremely strong. It was very hard to row and highly dangerous, and we barely made it to the meeting place. More than once we were spun around by the current and caught up in cables,” Anton says.

“I put a pin in Google Maps and sent it across to the right bank. I think the military put a drone up to check it was safe to sail over, and then they came to get us.

“My grandmother cried with happiness when we reached the right bank. I did too. You can imagine the emotions. We’d lived under occupation for nearly a year and a half.”

Ukraine says volunteers, police and soldiers evacuated more than 100 people from occupied areas of the flood zone to Kyiv-held territory.

Anton is now recovering from his long ordeal, and the Russian captivity that he says left him with scars, burns and broken ribs. He has spoken to his son, Mark, who tells him he is enjoying life in Cork and understands that “there is a war in Ukraine and dad was a prisoner”.

“It was joy and a shock,” to finally return to free Ukraine, Anton says. “To be honest, I’m still in shock from all this – it feels like something from a film.”