Hanging washing over the rubble: life in Mykolaiv as Russian bombs rain down

Residents forced to adjust to terrifying new normal in southern Ukrainian port city, with near-daily strikes

Three days after a Russian S-300 missile slammed into the roof of her apartment block in the small hours of Sunday morning, Iryna Davydiuk was improbably hanging out the washing on what was left of the balcony of her apartment. It was a generously warm late October afternoon in the southern port city of Mykolaiv, but on the terrace below her lay a large concrete block and copious amounts of rubble.

Fortunately, Davydiuk, 48, had decided to shelter with relatives in the countryside over the weekend and so avoided the night-time impact. When she returned on Monday morning, she was stunned to find the widespread damage to her family home. “I couldn’t understand why, what for,” she said. “Why did they do this? We were just peacefully living our lives. Why did this happen?”

Woman and child walk past destroyed block of flats
A woman and child walk past the destroyed block of flats in Mykolaiv where Iryna Davydiuk lives. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

At 1.40am on 23 October, two S-300 missiles landed on Davydiuk’s estate a couple of minutes apart. One hit her block, and the other blew up a shop, blasting rubble all over a children’s playground. Olena Izotova, 46, said she was woken up by the first bomb, while the shock wave from the second “blew her into the other room”. Miraculously, nobody was killed, because the strike happened at night – and so many people have already moved away.

Since March, Mykolaiv has been relentlessly and indiscriminately targeted by the Russian invaders, after their advance was halted a few miles away. Missiles and bombs land most days – there have been only 25 days without shelling, officials say, and 148 civilians have been killed, including, earlier this month, an 11-year-old boy.

Fear is part of everyday life. “We hear shellings every day and night,” said Davydiuk. “Sometimes you run to work and think: ‘Thank God I’m alive.’ Sometimes at night you lean into the wall for safety and you feel like you are merging into the wall.” People have their own survival strategies, a self-designated safe space in their house, and the remaining residents are supposed to have two places where they can stay in case of emergencies.

Iryna Davydiuk
Iryna Davydiuk in her flat. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

S-300 missiles are not supposed to be used like this. It is a Russian air defence system, modified to hit land targets because the invaders are running short of conventional bombs, including the cluster munitions that were previously used against the city. Nine people were killed at a cashpoint queue in March by a cluster bomb, and, depressingly, Izotova said she can now distinguish between the weapons as they land: “S-300s are very loud. Cluster bombs are not so noisy.”

On the one hand, the ruthless Russian strikes appear to have no impact on people’s desire to resist. Standing next to the wreckage on her balcony, Davydiuk said the bombers were “the worst people that can exist”, adding sadly: “We didn’t want this war, but it came to us.” She moved her children out of the city a while ago, but because of her work as an administrator in a local hospital, she has no intention of evacuating. “How can I leave the patients?” she asked.

Red Cross water and food distribution point
A woman drinks at a Red Cross water and food distribution point. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

But with winter coming, doubts linger. Mykolaiv has had no safe running water since the spring – the pumping station is in a Russian-held frontline area – and the water that comes from the taps is salty and at times a pale yellow, judging by the filters in Davydiuk’s block. The Red Cross and other charities distribute drinking water, driven into the city, from bowsers around town, where residents line up, holding several large empty bottles.

The local authorities hope that heating will be less of a problem. Vitalii Lukov, the deputy mayor, said gas consumption was already a tenth of normal levels because the industrial plants that consumed most of it had stopped work because of the war. But electricity is another matter. “We are really worried,” he said, because of Russia’s recent change in military tactics to target power stations.


Lukov said that for months there had been no discernible pattern to the Russian bombing, or indeed any discrimination: 2,219 residential buildings have been damaged since the start of the war. Two weeks ago, drones also struck an industrial vat of sunflower oil, of which Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter. Oil flowed through the nearby streets and even now, a fortnight on, the roads by the storage facility are greasy and the smell is unmistakeable.

Residents queueing in church
Residents wait to get registered to collect food at a church. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

But Lukov said there were signs of a new Russian approach as the winter loomed. “Recently we have seen signs of targeting,” he said, including attempts to hit electricity “substations, facilities, infrastructure, and energy infrastructure objects”, which could lead to a disastrous loss of power. For now the concern is theoretical, but with power cuts becoming the new normal elsewhere in Ukraine, the threat hangs over the city.

The prevailing mood, however, is not at all pessimistic. Residents have been returning to the city, encouraged by Ukraine’s improved prospects on the battlefield and the growing talk that Russian-occupied Kherson, less than 40 miles away, will fall to the counterattackers. Lukov said his wife and daughter had moved to Germany in May, only to return in September and give up their refugee status. “They understand that these territories will no longer be occupied,” he said, although the extra numbers coming will add to the pressure on electricity supplies.

Citizens waiting for food and water
Nina Vasileva (left, blue hat) and Olha (purple coat) at a Red Cross water and food distribution point. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

At a water distribution point, Nina, 73, said she had decided to return on 22 September from the west of Ukraine. She admitted to being frightened – “Only fools aren’t scared” – but said she coped in part because “I sleep in the hallway, in the corridor” to stay safe from any overnight shelling. Nina turned down a chance to join her daughter and grandchildren in Germany, arriving at the bus station in Lviv then changing her mind: “I looked at the people getting on the bus and thought, ‘Just no, it’s not for me.’”

If the constant Russian bombing had changed anybody’s minds, there was no immediate sign of it in the city. At another distribution point, residents gathered for free food in the early afternoon, chatting to while away the time. Nina Vasileva, 82, said she was disgusted by the Russian aggression. “Putin is a bastard. We were three brotherly nations, Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians. Now he is killing us, looting, killing children, old people. It’s a nightmare.”

Residents clear up debris
Residents of a block of flats clear up debris. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Back at the apartment blocks, the remaining residents are doing their best to clear up after the weekend’s rocket strikes. Izotova is leading a group of half a dozen, sweeping and collecting rubble and shrapnel into buckets. There is little expectation that the state can organise a clear-up, meaning people must do it themselves. It is perhaps the most visible example of defiance available to the citizens of Mykolaiv. “We are Ukrainians,” she said, prompting laughter from the others present. “You have to keep yourself busy. Our homes must be clean; it is a kind of an instinct.”


Dan Sabbagh in Mykolaiv. Pictures by Ed Ram

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