Ukraine allows perilous Dnieper crossing to escape Russian occupation

Suspension

Kherson, Ukraine — Dozens of people have contacted Dmytro Fomin in the past few weeks, pleading with him to take them across the Dnieper River, he said.

Fomin, a 54-year-old motorboat owner and unofficial ferryman, was desperate to help Ukrainians flee the Russian-occupied East Bank. The main crossings have been destroyed.

The calls came from relatives separated for months, aging parents hoping to return to their families and a nine-months pregnant woman trying to get to the hospital to give birth to her baby: cut off from a city they used to visit without a second thought, on the banks of a river that has become the front line of a grinding war.

On Saturday, more than three weeks after Ukraine regained control of the city, Ukrainian officials announced they would lift the ban on crossing the river, encouraging residents on the occupied eastern bank to flee to Kherson, whatever the danger, in a possible hint of a possible hurricane. Ukraine’s offensive could continue to advance east. But those hoping to cross in the opposite direction, to rescue or reunite those stranded, will still be banned.

Few accepted the offer to flee. Many people had no means of crossing, and those on the Ukrainian side of the river—including motorboat drivers like Fomin—had no way of helping. Those who are willing to dare the journey are in dire danger: a 65-year-old woman, who was trying to cross the river by boat with her husband, was killed under gunfire on Sunday, according to a statement from the Kherson City Council. Her husband survived. Local officials did not immediately respond to requests for more information or say whether Russian or Ukrainian forces fired the shots.

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“Guys, I’ll get into a boat and go to you,” Fomin said to someone on the phone on Sunday, while standing in front of the river on the Kherson city side. But “it’s absolutely not possible at the moment.”

Even after it was announced that one-way westward crossings would be allowed, the Dnieper was empty of boats on Sunday.

A spokesman for the regional government said officials made their decision after receiving requests from Ukrainians living on the eastern bank of the river. Officials told Kherson residents that they would be allowed into the city in one place, which was a ferry terminal.

“We are waiting for everyone who has the opportunity and wants to return to the territories controlled by Ukraine!” Telegram message stated.

But the crossing will not be easy – and the Ukrainian authorities have not provided any assistance.

From firing positions on the eastern side of the river, the Russian forces destroyed the city bombing in recent days. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces reportedly crossed the Dnieper to the east bank. A video posted on the Telegram page of a volunteer team of Ukrainian special forces showed a Ukrainian flag tied to a crane near the beach, which the militants described as a “stepping stone to end the occupation of the left bank of the Kherson region”.

But some of those still living in the occupied areas across the river were afraid to cross. A woman living on the east bank, who asked Fomin for help, said she and four other people had been trying to return to Kherson, but were worried their boats would be fired upon — a worry confirmed by the fate of the woman who was shot on Sunday.

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On the Kherson River side, residents gathered in sub-zero temperatures at the ferry terminal on Sunday, asking soldiers for any information about evacuations to Kherson.

Many have tried to go the other way.

One of the women, Svetlana, was hoping to cross the river to meet her husband and daughter on the east bank. I thought it would be better to stay away from them in Kherson, where missile strikes were going on. On Sunday, her 64th birthday, she went to the river station to see if it was possible to cross.

“The Russians are there,” she said, “but I’m willing to take risks.”

Yuri Senchuk, 74, was among the first to wait at the river station on Sunday, along with his dog Baikal. He was hoping to cross the river to stay with his friends at their home on the east side. His wife and daughter fled the country. The retired bus driver said that electricity, water and heating in his apartment were cut off. Across the river, his friends have a heating stove and a well. He had hoped it would be safer than in Kherson, as he had heard shelling near his home five times the night before.

“It might be warmer out there,” he said. “The Russians won’t do anything to me.”

Among the only people who managed to cross the river on Sunday, at least at the official point of entry, was a group of workers coming and going from an industrial crane on the east side, who said they had a special pass and were not traveling under the river. General decree.

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Entrepreneur Elena Klimenko went to the ferry terminal looking for information on how to reach her mother, a 77-year-old woman who has lived in a country house across the river since September. She had hoped that she could charter a boat to go pick up her mother, but she couldn’t.

She was unfazed by the danger. “As far as we know, it is not safe even for you to be in Kherson,” she said. “There is no other way.”

But Fomin, the canoe driver, said he feared what would happen if he tried to cross the river.

He is used to taking risks. He said he had ferried people – including children returning from camps in Crimea – across the river secretly, after a Russian-imposed curfew, when both banks of the river were occupied.

But he knew that even if the Ukrainian authorities allowed him to cross by boat, he would be within range of a Russian sniper. He said he wished the authorities would help bring people in.

On Saturday, a rocket hit the marina near his home where he keeps his boat. On Sunday, when he returned to the dock, he found the body of a security guard who had worked on the dock, he said, burned from the explosion the day before.

Even as the riverbank became increasingly dangerous, Fomin planned to continue returning to the pier.

“I was born and raised here,” he said. “I will not be an inch away from the city.”

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