Life Inside Mykolaiv, a Besieged Ukrainian City

The port city of Mykolaiv is being shelled by Russian forces every day. Bodies are piled at the morgue. But residents refuse to succumb.


MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — Alla Ryabko stood in the courtyard of the city morgue, trembling with grief and rage. Her son, Capt. Roman Ryabko, had been killed in fighting on the first day of the war in Ukraine, but two weeks had passed and his body had not yet been prepared for burial.

“He’s there lying in a bag,” she said, gesturing to the covered bodies on the ground. “They’re not even giving him to me so that I can wash him. I have to take him away in a bag, a garbage bag.”

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The morgue is overflowing. Bodies are being released to families in the state they arrived, half-dressed in shredded military uniforms, spackled with blood and blackened by fire. Bodies are in the corridor, in the administrative offices, in the courtyard, in a storage shed nearby. They are soldiers and civilians, wrapped in sheets or carpets or nothing at all.

Life Inside Mykolaiv, a Besieged Ukrainian City

Even as Ms. Ryabko cried out her anguish, artillery strikes shook the ground beneath her feet. There were already 132 bodies in the morgue that day. More would be on the way.

There is shelling every day in Mykolaiv. It usually starts before dawn, as a rumble or a thud or a thwack. It electrifies the air and sends a jolt through the gut, and those who choose to stay in bed, rather than flee to a basement, can shut their eyes and let their ears paint a picture of the battle raging in the dark.

Russian forces want to take Mykolaiv because it stands in their way. The Varvarivsky Bridge in the city is the only passage for miles across the wide mouth of the Southern Buh River. By seizing the bridge, Russian fighters can push along the Black Sea coast west to Odessa, the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy and the country’s largest civilian port.

To get to the bridge, they have to go through the Ukrainian fighters who, so far, have not budged. And so the Russian troops bomb, randomly and indiscriminately, striking neighborhoods, hospitals and supermarkets, opting for terror in the absence of military gain. At least a dozen civilians were killed by airstrikes over the weekend, according to the local authorities.

Yet there is also a refusal to succumb. Trash is still being collected, and city workers have embarked on an aggressive tree-pruning campaign, though the shelling is knocking down some of those trees.

There is the family who closed down a high-end interior design business and now drives around the city all day delivering food to needy residents, pausing only on occasion to dash into a basement for cover. There is the group of local guys who banded together to try to fix a Russian tank damaged in the fighting so that Ukraine’s military might use it.

A few blocks from the morgue, the Coffee Go cafe is doing a brisk business, even as artillery fire rattles the plate-glass windows. When the owners tried to close down, their teenage employees rebelled, said Viktoria Kuplevskaya, an 18-year-old barista with a streak of orange in her hair.

“We wanted to work,” she said. “I’m not scared of anything.”

Once a center of shipbuilding for the Russian Empire, Mykolaiv was among the first places attacked after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia gave the order to invade on Feb. 24. The Russian troops have pressed deep into the city limits, only to be pushed out, leaving behind the burned-out carcasses of armored vehicles.

No one knows how long Ukrainian defenders can hold. Russian forces have attacked with tanks, artillery and fighter jets, pummeling the city on three sides. Every day brings more death. But also defiance.

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“Good morning. We’re from Ukraine.”

So begins the typical morning video message from Vitaliy Kim, the regional governor. The joke among city residents is that nobody will leave their homes unless Mr. Kim says it is safe, and no one can sleep soundly until Mr. Kim wishes them good night. It is only a slight exaggeration. His upbeat videos on Facebook and Telegram, which he invariably opens by flashing a peace sign and toothy smile, typically garner half a million views, roughly equal to the city’s population.

“When he smiles, we can go to bed,” said Natalya Stanislavchuk, who has been volunteering to deliver food to the needy. “If Kim says we can sleep calmly, then we can sleep calmly.”

Mr. Kim posts videos throughout the day, a mix of reassurance and withering denigration of Russian forces, whom he refers to alternatively as idiots, bastards and orcs, the evil snaggletoothed army of the east in Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” The messages are meant to bolster the spirits of city residents, even if the booms they are hearing sound terrifyingly close.

“What can I say, the 17th day of war, all is well, the mood is excellent,” Mr. Kim said in a message over the weekend that began with news of an airstrike on a residential neighborhood. “We have freedom and we’re fighting for it. And all they have is slavery. We want all of our dreams to come true and we’re moving in that direction. Together to victory.”

A month ago, Mr. Kim’s main priorities centered around improving roads and the region’s tourism infrastructure, including big plans to develop a resort on a picturesque piece of the Black Sea coast.

“These were costly, large, beautiful projects that were needed, and in one day this was destroyed,” Mr. Kim said.

Now he coordinates with the military for the defense of the city. Meeting for an interview at the regional administration headquarters, Mr. Kim was dressed in green cargo pants with a black pistol holstered to his belt.

He predicted that any Russian effort to take Mykolaiv would lead to a bloody and destructive street-by-street firefight. Every street corner has a pile of tires and a ready incendiary bomb sitting next to it. Should Russian forces enter the city, residents are prepared to quickly plunge them into a smoky blackness, giving cover as the Ukrainian defenders attempt to pick off the Russian tanks one by one.

It would be apocalyptic, Mr. Kim said.

“My strategy is to be much more joyous than is appropriate for this kind of situation,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that I don’t understand how serious things are.”

The fireball lit up the night sky like an early sunrise. Another day of Russian shelling had begun.

It was Monday, March 7, and Russian forces had launched an early-morning attack that jolted residents from their beds. They fled into makeshift bomb shelters, basements that many residents have outfitted with mattresses and shipping pallets for sleeping because they now spend so much time there.

“They attacked our city dishonorably, cynically, while people were sleeping,” Mr. Kim said in one of his messages.

A cruise missile had hit a barracks filled with sleeping soldiers from the 79th Ukrainian Air Assault Brigade. Eight were killed and another eight were missing, their bodies buried in the pile of rubble. The strike opened the barracks like a dollhouse, revealing an eerie glimpse into a soldier’s daily life: gray steel bunk beds, regulations posted on the wall.

It could have been worse had the missile not first slammed into a line of poplar trees, sending it slightly off target.

“We were very lucky that these poplar trees were here because if it were a direct strike we would have all been screwed,” said a soldier named Vova, who was helping to search for bodies. “The poplars bent the rocket’s trajectory.”

It was the same across Mykolaiv that day. In one neighborhood of densely packed apartment blocks, residents alternated between clearing out their shattered homes and dashing to basement bomb shelters amid continuing strikes. One woman, when approached by a reporter, unleashed such a torrent of profanity directed at Mr. Putin that she felt the need to apologize, and then burst into tears.

The missile strikes had blown out windows and sprayed shrapnel through furniture, walls and appliances.

“Look at how the Russian world is saving us,” Marina Babenko, a mother of two, said, referring sarcastically to Mr. Putin’s claim that Russia was waging a war of liberation. “We were living fine and had everything we needed. Now they’re bombing residential neighborhoods, women and children. We have no weapons. All we can do is hide in the basement. We have no strength for anything else.”

In the tidy neighborhood of Balabanivka, residents were cleaning up after Russian jets dropped a payload of bombs early in the morning that leveled homes and killed several residents.

A bomb had carved a large crater out of what used to be Roman Nikora’s backyard, and three chickens sat beside the mangled remains of their hut. An acrid smell hung in the air.

“Come, let me show you how we survived,” Mr. Nikora said, leading a visitor into the shallow basement where he had hidden during the bombing with his wife, their child and his parents.

The basement looked like it had been turned upside down and shaken. Cabinets had been ripped off the wall; part of the backyard was pushed through the windows.

“They’re worse than the fascists,” Mr. Nikora, 32, a businessman, said of the Russian forces. “They’re saying they only target military objects, military structures. Well, there’s nothing like that here.”

Despite his fear of more bombing, Mr. Nikora said that he and his family had no plans to go anywhere.

“We’ll rebuild,” he said. “I still have hands.”

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Two older women were sitting on a bench in a city park, watching three young children play, when their conversation was interrupted by an ominous droning sound. An air raid siren. The women kept talking. After a few minutes, they slowly rose, bundled the youngest child into a stroller, and walked away in no great hurry.

Russian rocket attacks may now set the rhythm of life in Mykolaiv, but many residents are determined to play the song in a key of their own choosing.

“There is no panic,” said Ms. Stanislavchuk, who spoke so admiringly of Mr. Kim, the governor. “Our people coolly evaluate the situation and help one another.”

Before the war, Ms. Stanislavchuk and her husband, Aleksandr, had planned to open a second branch of their interior design business in Bucha, an up-and-coming suburb of Kyiv where their son, Yegor, had moved into a sleek, newly built development.

Last week, they were instead driving around Mykolaiv, their hometown, passing out food and nervously awaiting news from Yegor. He was attempting to escape Bucha with his pet rabbit, Diva, after hiding in a basement for several days from the Russian troops who had occupied the suburb.

“There are those moments when morale falters and when your mood sours,” said Ms. Stanislavchuk, who was carrying an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary. “But when you see that someone needs your help and support, you have to get up and move. Then you realize that it will come to an end because the truth is on our side.”

There has been an exodus from Mykolaiv during the past two weeks. On some mornings, large convoys of cars and buses, some with homemade cardboard signs saying, “Children,” have snarled traffic at the Varvarivsky Bridge.

The bridge is the escape route. It is also a prize that Russian forces covet.

But should they enter the city, in addition to Ukrainian military forces, the Russian troops will have to face people like Dmitry Dmitriev, a local journalist who has put down his pen in favor of a submachine gun. On a recent visit to the offices of his online news outlet, there were more guns than journalists, and boxes of ammunition littered the floor.

“All of us are participating in the resistance,” Mr. Dmitriev said.

The Russian forces will also have to contend with Nikolai Bilyashchat, a 54-year-old bus driver. Last week, Mr. Bilyashchat was with neighbors, cigarettes dangling from their lips, peering into the open engine bay of a Russian T-90 tank.

A day earlier, Ukrainian forces had blown up a bridge as the tank was crossing over. It was still functional but could only drive in circles. A white Z, which has been used by the Russian forces to identify their vehicles, had been painted over in green, and the tank’s antenna mast sported a Ukrainian flag.

Mr. Bilyashchat wanted to get it running and turn it against the Russian troops.

“We’re just locals. I’m not a mechanic. I’m just helping,” he said. “What else are we supposed to do? We need to help somehow. I’m not going to sit at home and hide.”

At City Hospital No. 3, Anna Smetana sat up in a cot, sobbing. A 40-year-old mother, she was wearing a peach dress with black polka dots, her shoulder and leg covered by large bandages soaked through with blood.

Two days earlier, Ms. Smetana and six of her colleagues from a local orphanage were driving to a small village where the children had been evacuated at the start of the war. About 15 miles outside of the city, she said, an armored Russian fighting vehicle, emblazoned with a white Z, opened fire on the van.

“First they shot at us with automatic weapons,” Ms. Smetana said. “Then the car caught on fire and filled with smoke.”

“Get out, get out,” she said the soldiers had told her. “They put us on our knees, pointed their weapons at us and took our telephones.”

“We asked them to give them back,” she said. Their reply: “No, not possible. We have orders.”

Three of Ms. Smetana’s colleagues were incinerated by the fire that engulfed the van, she said. Ms. Smetana was shot twice in the shoulder and once in the leg.

“There were rockets everywhere, bombs,” she added. “All we heard were the sounds of explosions.”

On just one day, Ms. Smetana was one of 25 patients being treated for wounds from shelling and gunfire, according to the hospital’s medical director, Dmitri Kolosov. Earlier in the week, shells had landed in the hospital courtyard, spraying shrapnel in all directions, he added.

“We thought coronavirus was a nightmare,” Mr. Kolosov said. “But this is hell.”

Black strafe marks pock a prop plane that sits on the runway of Mykolaiv’s small international airport. Inside, the security screening area has been gutted, and in a second-floor lounge are the remains of a soldier’s dinner of canned sardines in tomato sauce.

Early in the war, Russian troops held the airport briefly, only to be quickly expelled by Ukrainian fighters. Since then, the Russian forces have kept trying to gain control so that their transport planes can bring in troops and equipment to feed their fight and continue their push west.

But, for now, the Ukrainians keep stopping them. Video taken by Ukrainian troops show them firing shoulder-mounted rockets from the roof of the airport at Russian fighters below.

On a recent visit, the Ukrainian flag was flying.

“We have a very strong position and we’re waiting for them,” said Sgt. Ruslan Khoda, who insisted on practicing his English with a reporter. “There is nothing unexpected. We know they are arriving and from where they’re arriving. And we’re ready to say, ‘Hello, Russian stupid boys.’”

Sergeant Khoda said that Russian forces appeared to be probing for weakness. They launch attacks from the north and northeast, then switch directions and come from the south. Often, he said, attacks are preceded by overflights of Russian surveillance drones.

“They are trying to attack us from different sides to taste our protection, to taste our power,” he said. “Russian troops did not expect such a strong army.”

Maj. Gen. Dmitry Marchenko, commander of Ukraine’s military forces in Mykolaiv, said that the Ukrainian strategy was to break morale through an unrelenting pounding of Russian positions. But there is another critical factor.

“We are defending our homes, our women, our families,” he said. “We don’t need their world. We don’t need their language. Let them build their own country and die in it and create whatever dictatorship they want there. We’re going to live like free people.”

On Monday, Mr. Kim was somber in his evening video message. He acknowledged that the situation had grown more serious, while denigrating the Russian troops as “idiots” for attacking civilian areas with rockets.

“There’s no logical sense to it,” he said. “But the initiative is on our side, and we’re moving.”

With that, on the 18th day of the war, he sent the people of Mykolaiv to bed.

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