War in Ukraine: Race under the bombs to flee Mikolaiv: “Why is Russia doing this to us?” | International

Yelena clutches the bag in which her tan and white cat meows desperately. She has just packed practically her entire life into a small black suitcase and now, with the incessant noise of the bombardments in the background in Mikolaiv (475,000 inhabitants), she cannot manage to dial her family’s number on her mobile. “Why do they do this to us? I don’t understand it”, this 67-year-old woman laments tearfully.

Around him, under an incipient snowfall, dozens of people try to escape from this Black Sea port city, one of the main targets of Vladimir Putin’s forces and under relentless Russian attacks for four days. In cars crammed with belongings or on foot, they seek to cross one of the bridges that connect Mikolaiv, boxed in an estuary, with the road that leads to Odessa —and beyond, to the borders of Moldova and Romania—, the only way out of the city into territory controlled by Kiev. The Ukrainian Army has everything ready to blow up these bridges if the Kremlin troops take control of the city, a strategic enclave for the conquest of the coast and a shuttle to Odessa, the great city on the Black Sea with almost a million inhabitants .

This Monday, at dawn, after a weekend of intense fighting in which Ukrainian troops pushed back the Russian Army, Putin’s forces launched another fierce attack on Mikolaiv and on a residential neighborhood in the east of the city. For hours, the bombardments and the smell of gunpowder and ashes have mixed with the humidity and snowflakes. Along the estuary, soldiers and members of the National Guard and volunteers from the territorial defense brigades, in camouflage uniforms and hats pulled down over their ears, reinforced the barricades with sandbags and installed new anti-tank traps. “The Russians are attacking strategic infrastructures and attacking civilians, but for now we are keeping them at bay,” says officer Sergei, who has been under orders since the invasion began not to reveal his last name. In the background, the outbreak of a new artillery attack. “This is ours. Counterattack”, he comments pointing to the air.

Amphibious landing against Odessa

Mikolaiv, founded in the 18th century as a shipyard under the Russian empire and home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet for decades, has become a key battlefield for Putin’s forces on their way to control the Ukrainian coast and isolate the landlocked country. Crystal-clear lakes, playgrounds and naval-themed monuments are now targeted by bombs. The city, strategically located at the entrance to the Black Sea and which was one of the main naval construction centers of the Soviet Union, is the missing piece of the puzzle for the Kremlin to reinforce its assault on southern Ukraine, after the conquest of Jersón —also on the Black Sea—, the first city to fall into the hands of the invader. Control of Mikolaiv would allow Russia to have another anchor point for an amphibious landing with which to support the offensive against Odessa, 120 kilometers down a road now plagued with checkpoints.

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By late afternoon, the governor of Mikolaiv, Vitali Kim, assured that the Ukrainian forces had retaken control of the city’s airport and stopped the advance of the Russians, after another tough battle. “Today can hardly be called a good day. They attacked our city in a despicable way, while people were sleeping,” Kim says in a Telegram message. The governor assures that at least eight people have died from the attacks on Monday. “There is also serious damage to infrastructure. We can restore that, but the human casualties are terrible, ”he laments. Mikolaiv, home to one of Ukraine’s three largest ports, is suffering from shelling, rocket attacks and helicopter attacks.

Civilians flee the city of Mikolaiv, near Odessa, in southern Ukraine, on Monday.
Civilians flee the city of Mikolaiv, near Odessa, in southern Ukraine, on Monday.

The mayor of the city, Oleksandr Senkevich, also assures that the Kremlin troops are mainly using cluster munitions against the city. “90% of the bombs that they throw at us are cluster bombs, destined to do a lot, a lot of damage and fundamentally to people,” says the councilor, who affirms that his team has documented dozens of attacks with this type of ammunition, prohibited by a treaty that neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed.

On the Varvarovski drawbridge, the main one in the city, heavy artillery fire continues to thunder. With a hurried step, a man carries his two-year-old son and a backpack as best he can while his wife carries another bag and a pack of diapers. The flat terrain of the city does not make it easy to defend and the Varvarovski pass, about two kilometers long, opened in 1964, may have its days numbered. It is almost the only route out of Mikolaiv and the target of Russian attacks, which could seek to leave the city isolated to besiege it, as they are doing with other cities. Also, from the Ukrainians, who are willing to blow it up to prevent Putin’s soldiers from getting a quick ride to Odessa, which is already gearing up for a big attack.

Your pulse will not tremble. A few days ago, in the face of advancing and pressure from Kremlin troops, Ukrainian forces sank the flagship of the country’s naval fleet, which was undergoing repair work, at the Mikolaiv shipyard. Scuttled to avoid capture of her.

Missiles launched from Russian ships in the Black Sea, which have been stationed off the Ukrainian coast for several days, raising alarms of a possible amphibious landing, hit strategic infrastructure in Tuzla, south of Odessa, on Monday, from where another train has been scheduled. additional evacuation. “Russian troops are actively preparing to attack the city,” Mikhailo Podoliak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, warned on Monday. “They have already tried to carry out that plan with a strong offense, but our defense has managed to contain them,” he said.

Barely disturbed by the noise of the bombs, Artur Gorpinich goes to buy cigarettes in a grocery store next to the Varvarovski drawbridge. “They shoot, yes, but for now I’m not afraid,” he says. The 34-year-old man, with a sharp face and a neat beard, explains that he and his wife have sent their young son with his sister to the Czech Republic, but that they have decided to stay in Mikolaiv: “No I think to run. Before I would enlist in the Army. I am a driver. This is our land, our city. We won’t let them take it.”

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