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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #362

My friend and colleague met me this morning at my hotel in Kryvyi Rih at 7.15am; I’d been up pretty early before then and I was exhausted, stuffing myself with the hotel breakfast, before he even arrived. I was pleased to be driving into Kherson to help support the civilians there whose homes are being blown to pieces by Russian artillery and mortars from the front line positions just over the Dnipro River. The route we chose, rather than the aggressive military checkpoint between Mykolaïv and Kherson, was along the route of the Dnipro River. The first thing I want to observe is that although many people will tell you that this road - between Zaporizhzhia and Kherson via Nikopol, along the north bank of the Dnipro River, is extremely dangerous, with the risk of being struck by Russian artillery and drones (the so-called “Blue Road”), in fact none of this is the case. It is a quiet, safe road, albeit one that is in terrible condition. So our vehicle bumped and hurtled up and down the bouncy roads, with hardly any other traffic in sight; but it was not dangerous and while we could see the Russian-occupied south bank of the Dnipro River there was no sense of danger at all.

However we came to an abrupt halt at Kherson Oblast borders. The shelling in Kherson has become particularly bad in recent weeks, since I was last there about a month ago, and last week two Swiss aid workers were killed in Kherson. As a result the military governor of Kherson has issued an edict that no foreigners are to enter free Kherson Oblast without his personal permission; and this edict was being scrupulously observed by the military checkpoint we encountered. The guards spotted immediately that we were foreigners, because the car had the steering wheel on the wrong side and a foreign set of licence plates. They pulled us over, took photos of all our documents, and then very politely asked us to place the vehicle to one side. They were calling the military governor’s office personally, to ask us for permission to enter. After about 20 minutes, the answer came back: no; our permission was not granted, he was very sorry, and therefore we would have to turn round and head off in some other direction.

I called my contact in Kherson and he called his contacts but nothing could be done. The Russians have amassed 50,000 to 60,000 troops on the south side of the River Dnipro in the vicinity of Kherson, and there is a real likelihood that they are going to try to take the city again. If that happens, then any foreigners there will be having an extremely bad day out. If they are lucky they will be captured, tortured, charged and tried as spies, sentenced to death and then released emaciated as part of a spy or prisoner swap in a year or two. The Ukrainian Armed Forces don’t want this sort of publicity or danger, and therefore all foreigners are banned from entering indefinitely and the handful of foreigners who are still there are being strongly encouraged to leave.

So we had to turn our car round and drive back up the peaceful but exceptionally bumpy and uncomfortable coastal road towards Zaporizhzhia, from where I am writing these words. The road trip from Kherson to Zaporizhzhia is now exacerbated by the fact that the Russians have blown up one of the causeway roads just west of Nikopol, approximately half way along the River Dnipro and opposite the Enerhodar nuclear facility that has caused so much controversy when the Russians occupied it at the beginning of the war and then started firing hypersonic missiles at the reactor casings. There is now a bumpy potholed catastrophe of a road to go round the causeway that was destroyed as a diversion, that adds about an hour and a half to the journey and does untold damage to the base of your vehicle.

So I got to see NIkopol, the city opposite the Enerhodar facility, and again although there are reports of its being extremely dangerous and under constant artillery bombardment these reports appear not to be true at the current time. Nikopol is entirely at peace although it feels washed out with people - they have all left - and it is a ghastly crumbling Soviet dump of a place in which the Soviet central planners clearly got out some rulers and drew lines all over the place without thinking what they might actually build between the wide boulevards they were planning from their distant offices in Moscow. Nikopol is deathly boring, and there is no reason to go there save to take an illicit photograph of the Enerhodar nuclear facility opposite. You’re not really supposed to go up to the promenade by the waterfront in Nikopol, but if you step over the razor wire then nobody is there to stop you and casual war tourism taking photos of the Russian-occupied row of nuclear reactors across the water is not prevented. The image of those reactors has become a recurrent symbol of the war, and I wanted to see them for myself. Then we got out of Nikopol as quickly as we could, and continued the laborious but essentially hassle-free drive up to Zaporizhzhia.

Zaporizhzhia itself is certainly more dangerous than driving up that coastal road. As we entered the city, we saw plumes of smoke in the distance and the relentless wail of air raid sirens that I recalled from my early days in Ukraine in September 2023 was once more omnipresent. The north bank of the Dnipro is actually rather beautiful, with fauna and flora in abundance as though a Ukrainian version of the Lake District national park in England. Had there been any tourist infrastructure, I wouldn’t have minded spending a day or two there. The Russians feel so close yet so far; the river is enormously wide at that point and the thought of them crossing it to invade the rest of Ukraine seems so unthinkable.

As I head out to enjoy Zaporizhzhia’s limited nightlife tonight, amidst the bangs and the booms of the missiles and artillery falling in the distance, I will think how to get all those aid materials I had packed in my luggage and in our vehicle to the people of Kherson. I strongly fear that my friends and comrades, the foreign volunteers working in Kherson, will have to leave imminently due to the fear of Russian reoccupation of the city. Should I send the aid collected to them by mail? But they might not be there much longer. Or should I distribute the aid to another worthy cause which does not seem so hopeless and ferociously dangerous as the situation in Kherson? All these questions are for another day. For now, I am exhausted after a day of driving and negotiating with military checkpoint guards. I am profoundly concerned for the people of Kherson and for my fellow foreign volunteers working there. They have to get out. The Russians are on the march. Somehow they seem to intend to pontoon the river at Kherson, and their relentless shelling campaign has been softening the Ukrainians up. We need greater western help to resist this tide, and we need it now.


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