KHERSON, Ukraine — Natalia Kristenko’s dead body lay covered by a blanket in the doorway of her apartment building for hours overnight. City workers were too overwhelmed to retrieve her at first when they responded to a deadly barrage of attacks that shook Ukraine‘s southern city of Kherson.
The 62-year-old had been walking outside her home with her husband on Thursday night after drinking tea when the building was hit. Kristenko was killed instantly by a wound to the head. Her husband died hours later in hospital from internal bleeding.
“Russians took the two most precious people from me,” said their bereaved daughter, Lilia Kristenko, 38, clutching her cat inside her coat as she watched in horror on Friday as rescuers finally arrived to transport her mother to the morgue.
“They lived so well, they lived differently,” she told The Associated Press. “But they died in one day.”
A volley of missiles hit the newly liberated city of Kherson for a second day on Friday in a marked escalation of attacks since Russia pulled out of the city two weeks ago after an eight-month occupation. It comes as Russia has stepped up its bombardment of Ukraine’s power grid and other critical civilian infrastructure in an attempt to tighten the grip on Kiev. Officials estimate that about 50% of Ukraine’s energy facilities have been damaged in recent strikes.
The Ukrainian governor of Kherson, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said Friday that Russian shelling killed 10 civilians and wounded 54 others the day before, with two neighborhoods in the city of Kherson coming “under massive artillery fire.”
Russian shelling of parts of the Kherson region recently recaptured by Kyiv forced authorities to transfer hospital patients to other areas, Yanushevych said.
Some children were taken to the southern city of Mykolayiv, and some psychiatric patients went to the Black Sea port of Odesa, which is also under Ukrainian control, Yanushevych wrote on Telegram.
“I remind you that all residents of Kherson who want to evacuate to safer regions of Ukraine can contact the regional authorities,” he said.
Soldiers in the region had warned that Kherson would face intensified attacks as Russian troops dig in across the Dnieper River.
Dozens of people were injured in the strikes, which hit homes and commercial buildings, setting some on fire, blowing ash into the air and littering the streets with broken glass. The attacks caused the destruction of some residential areas not previously affected by the war, which has just entered its tenth month.
After Kristenko’s parents were hit, she tried to call an ambulance, but there was no phone network, she said. Her 66-year-old father clutched his stomach wound and screamed “it hurts so bad I’m dying,” she said. He was eventually taken by ambulance to hospital, but died during surgery.
On Friday morning, people sifted through what little remained of their destroyed houses and shops. Containers of food lined the floor of a crushed meat shop, while across the street customers lined up at a coffee shop where residents said four people died the night before.
“I don’t even know what to say, it was unexpected,” said Diana Samsonova, who works at the coffee shop, which remained open throughout Russia’s occupation and has no plans to close despite the attacks.
Later in the day, a woman was killed, probably from a rocket that hit a grassy patch nearby. Her motionless body lay on the side of the road. The violence is compounding what has become a serious humanitarian crisis. When the Russians retreated, they destroyed important infrastructure and left people with little water and electricity.
People have become so desperate that they find salvation in the midst of the wreckage. Outside an apartment building that was heavily damaged, residents filled buckets with water that pooled on the ground. Workers at the mortuary used puddles to clean their bloody hands.
Valerii Parkhomenko had just parked his car and entered a coffee shop when a rocket destroyed his vehicle.
“We were all sitting on the floor inside,” he said, showing the ashes on his hands. “I feel terrible, my car is broken, I need this car for work to feed my family,” he said.
Outside apartment buildings shot at, residents picked up trash and frantically searched for relatives while paramedics helped the injured.
“I think it’s so bad and I think all countries have to do something about this because it’s not normal,” said Ivan Mashkarynets, a man in his early 20s. who was at home with his mother when the block of flats next to his was hit.
“There is no army, there are no soldiers. There are just people living here and they are (still) firing,” he said.
Kherson’s population has fallen to around 80,000 from pre-war levels near 300,000. The government has said it will help people evacuate if they want, but many say they have nowhere to go.
“There’s no work (elsewhere), there’s no work here,” Ihor Novak said as he stood on a street surveying the aftermath of the shelling. “At the moment the Ukrainian army is here and with them we hope it will be safer.”
Mstyslav Chernov and Bernat Armangue in Kherson contributed reporting.