Ukraine allows perilous Dnieper River crossings to flee Russian occupation

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Women plead with Ukrainian forces on Sunday to take a boat to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, where families are in Russian-occupied territory. Ukraine began allowing, but not facilitating, westward crossings on Saturday, but few have been willing or able to make the trip. A woman was killed attempting to do so with her husband.
Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Dmytro Fomin, 54, a boat operator, stands near boats on the Dnieper River.

KHERSON, Ukraine – Dozens of people have called Dmytro Fomin in the past few weeks, he says, pleading with him to take them across the Dnieper River.

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

Appeals came in from relatives that had been separated for months, elderly parents hoping to return to their families and a woman, nine months pregnant, trying to reach a hospital to deliver her baby: sundered from a city they used to be able to visit without a second’s thought, by 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 be lifting a ban on crossing the river, encouraging residents on the occupied eastern bank to flee to Kherson, whatever the danger, in a possible sign that Ukraine’s offensive could continue to push east. But those hoping to cross in the opposite direction, to rescue or reunite with those stranded, would remain barred.

Few have taken up the offer to flee. Many people had no way of getting across, and those on the Ukrainian side of the river – including motorboat drivers like Fomin – had no way of helping. Those willing to dare the journey face grave peril: a 65-year-old woman, attempting to cross the river by boat alongside her husband, died under gunfire Sunday, according to a statement released by Kherson City Council. Her husband survived. Local officials did not respond immediately to requests for more information and did not say whether Russian or Ukrainian forces had fired the shots.

“Guys, I would get into a boat and go to you,” Fomin told someone by phone on Sunday, while standing in front of the river on the Kherson city side. But “it’s not possible at all right now.”

Even after the announcement that one-way westward crossing would be permitted, the Dnieper River was practically free of boats on Sunday.

A spokesman for the regional government said officials made their decision after receiving requests from Ukrainians living on the east bank of the river. Officials told Kherson residents they would be allowed to enter the city at one location, a ferry terminal.

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

But getting across wouldn’t be easy – and Ukrainian authorities offered no assistance.

From firing positions on the east side of the river, Russian forces have battered the city with shelling in recent days. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have reportedly crossed the Dnieper River onto the eastern bank. A video posted on a Telegram page of a volunteer Ukrainian special forces team showed a Ukrainian flag tied to a crane near the shore, which the fighters described as “a springboard for the de-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 make the crossing. One woman living in the east bank, who asked Fomin for help, said she and four other people were trying to return to Kherson, but worried their boats would come under fire – a concern borne out by the fate of the woman shot Sunday.

On the Kherson side of the river, residents gathered in below-freezing temperatures at the ferry terminal on Sunday, asking soldiers for any information about the evacuations to Kherson.

Many were trying to go in the opposite direction.

One woman, Svitlana, hoped to cross the river to reunite with her husband and daughter on the east bank. She thought it would be better than staying apart from them in Kherson, where the missile strikes were constant. On Sunday, her 64th birthday, she went to the river terminal to see if it might be possible to cross.

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

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Yurii Senchuk, 74, keeps his dog Baikal warm in his travel bag as he waits at a port on the Dnieper River.

One 74-year-old man, Yurii Senchuk, was among the first waiting at the river terminal on Sunday, alongside his dog, Baikal. He hoped to cross the river to stay with his friends at their house on the eastern side. His wife and daughter had fled the country. The retired bus driver said the power, water and heat in his apartment have been cutting out. Across the river, his friends have a heating stove and a well. And he hoped it might be safer than Kherson, where he heard shelling near his home five times the previous night.

“It might be warmer there,” he said. “The Russians are not going to do anything to me.”

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

Elena Klymenko, an entrepreneur, went to the ferry terminal looking for information about how to reach her mother, a 77-year-old woman who has been living in a cottage across the river since September. She had hoped she would be able to rent a boat to go pick up her mother, but was unable to.

She was unfazed by the danger. “As far as we know it’s unsafe to even be in Kherson,” she said. “There’s no other way.”

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

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

But he knew even if the Ukrainian authorities let him cross by boat, he’d be within Russian sniper range. He said he wished the authorities would help bring people over.

On Saturday, a missile struck the dock 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 at the dock, he said, burned from the explosion a day earlier.

Even as the riverfront became increasingly dangerous, Fomin planned to keep returning to the dock.

“I was born and raised here,” he said. “I’m not going to move an inch from the city.”