Andrei arrives on foot, pushing his way through the traffic of white vans, loading and unloading full, bulging black bags. The Mikolaiv Forensic Institute is overwhelmed. His morgue is overcrowded. The bodies of dozens of people — the vast majority of them Ukrainian soldiers, in bloody uniforms and very young bodies — lie on top of each other in two rooms in the backyard, where a sweet smell permeates everything. There are more black bags there. Some not so bulky contain the charred remains of someone who was recently breathing, walking, drinking, laughing, talking and was hit by an explosion. Andrei asks the soldiers who, rifles on their shoulders, review the loading and unloading process. To the commanding officer of the morgue. To the employee who helps close the bags and load the bodies, always with a lit cigarette to his lips. He looks for his friend Dmitri, dima. He is not among those identified. Not even in the only coffin in the yard. Andrei opens one of the black bags. Either. He will return in the afternoon. Or tomorrow. With the transfer of white vans and some hearse.
Mikolaiv, an important Black Sea port city known for its shipyards, has been resisting a harsh offensive by Vladimir Putin’s troops for two weeks. Boxed in an estuary, the town is, after the capture and occupation of Kherson, the next piece that the Kremlin wants to dominate before launching itself into Odessa, the largest port in Ukraine and a very symbolic city for Russian nationalism. Ukrainian troops have so far managed not only to prevent Moscow forces from entering the city. They have also regained control of the airport, which had fallen into Russian hands. They have turned the city into a kind of shield to repel the advance of the Kremlin.
But in the absence of progress, Kremlin soldiers have launched a campaign of terror against Mikolaiv, with shelling and artillery fire on residential areas, like the one that killed 11 people on Sunday. Meanwhile, Ukrainian and Russian troops are fighting hard in the outskirts of the city, which now only has one free way out: to Odessa, the black sea pearlthe listed city of a million inhabitants located about 120 kilometers away, which holds its breath and watches Mikolaiv carefully.
The shield-city resists, but at a very high cost. There are no official figures yet of verified deaths, but there are several dozen. Of its 500,000 inhabitants, 40% have left because of the war. Classes, as in the whole country, have been suspended. Trams and trolleybuses are active, but buses have been withdrawn. Now, with signs stuck to the windows with the word “child” — like dozens of private cars — they are used for evacuations. Everything is closed, except for some supermarkets and pharmacies, where some medicines are already running out.
In the street of the Forensic Institute there is another business open: a funeral wreath store. Natalia has been working there for three years. The whole pandemic and the war. She is overwhelmed. While she attends to an order, her partner, her oldest, comments that she had never seen anything like it. Not even in the worst moment of the coronavirus crisis. Two days ago, flowers for two teenage sisters killed in a bombing at her home, she explains. At least 90 minors have died throughout the country, according to the Ombudsman, since Putin, who maintains that Russians and Ukrainians are “the same people”, launched what he calls a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine and protect Russian-speaking citizens.
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At the Mikolaiv Emergency Hospital, a barricade is greeted with the painted graphic of “Putin, fuck you.” At the entrance, two nurses comment, in Russian, that they don’t want the Kremlin to save them. They are on a break and take the opportunity to queue at the cashier, who, at most, delivers the equivalent of 30 euros a day, by credit card. The center, which provides the first response to the wounded throughout the region, is full. Of civilians and military. Shrapnel wounds, serious contusions, explosions. On Saturday a father entered with his baby. An airstrike hit his house and killed the boy’s mother.
The United Nations puts almost 600 civilians killed by the war in Ukraine, although it warns that the figure is lower than the real one. The Ukrainian government indicates that some 1,300 soldiers have lost their lives since the beginning of the invasion. But looking at the Mikolaiv morgue it is easy to predict that the number will be higher. It is day 19 of Putin’s war against Ukraine.
“They bomb us not only to harm us, but also to keep us busy,” says the governor of the Mikolaiv region, Vitali Kim, on the esplanade of the Governorate building. Proudly sporting a Tiger military vehicle captured from the Russians and now used to patrol the area, the site is cordoned off, surrounded by barricades and protected by several National Guard checkpoints. In the distance an explosion is heard. “That’s not ours,” comments one of the uniformed men, straining his ears, “be careful because this building is a clear target.”
Kim – a politician and businessman of Korean origin who has become a benchmark for his communication formulas on social networks (in the style of President Volodímir Zelensky) and for his messages encouraging resistance – points out that Putin’s troops have changed of strategy. They have already occupied villages that are about 20 kilometers away from Mikolaiv, but they have slowed down their advance and are now attacking civilian infrastructure, heating supplies, electricity, gas.
“They are trying to move west, they are also trying to cut off and surround the city because they have seen that we will not let them take it. And meanwhile, they bombard roads to guarantee their escape,” says the governor. They want to guarantee a siege with attacks from the air, by land and perhaps even by sea. Russian naval forces have blockaded the Black Sea coast and cut off Ukraine from trade and shipping.
Violetta Stadnichenko is out for a walk, buying some food and walking her two dogs. She is a language teacher and continues to teach through Zoom. She now has students not only scattered around the country, displaced by the war, but also refugees: more than 2.5 million people have had to flee Ukraine, forced by the war. The vast majority are women and children, as martial law prohibits men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country in case troops need to be reinforced.
Stadnichenko says that maintaining the routine of the classes helps his students a lot. And her too. Especially not to think. He only disrupts classes a little, and not always, when the air raid sirens blare through the city. She is deeply disappointed in NATO. Above all for not imposing the no-fly zone that President Zelensky has demanded and that the Atlantic Alliance and the United States have already rejected: “Now not only us, Ukraine, we have realized that they will do nothing. Not even close the heavens.”
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