KHERSON – As shelling from Russia’s war on Ukraine echoed overhead, dozens of evacuees on an island in the Dnieper River scurried onto the tops of military trucks or into rafts to flee rising floodwaters caused by a dam breach upstream.
The unnerving bark of dogs left behind further soured the mood of those ferried to safety. A woman in one raft clutched the head of her despondent daughter. A stalled military truck stuck in swelling waters raised the panic level as Red Cross teams tried to manage an orderly evacuation.
Nobody knew just how high the waters rushing through a gaping hole in the Kakhovka dam would rise, or whether people or pets would escape alive.
The scrambled evacuation by boat and military truck from an island neighborhood off the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson downstream on Tuesday testified to the latest human chaos caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities accused Russian forces of purposely destroying the dam. Russian authorities blamed recent Ukrainian military strikes.
“The Russians have hit the dam, and didn’t think of consequences,” said Oleksandr Sokeryn, who fled his house with his family after it was completely flooded. “They should not be forgiven.”
Officials on both sides said the massive dam breach had caused no civilian casualties; the hurried escape aimed to keep it that way.
The island neighborhood was one residential area in the direct slipstream of Tuesday's catastrophe, which experts said was expected to play out over days as pent-up waters from the Kakhovka reservoir wash their way unhindered toward the Black Sea.
It could take days to know the real toll and damage.
In the early morning, before the floodwaters arrived, many residents tried to stick it out. But as the water level climbed in the streets, rising nearly to the tops of bus stops or the second floor of buildings, national guard teams and emergency crews fanned out to retrieve people who got stranded.
Some found themselves floating under the rafters of their homes as the waters rose. Space was limited on the trucks, and an effort to tow two rafts behind one went awry when the ropes snapped. One man chucked his German shepherd from the roof of the stalled truck onto another. Some residents clung to each other to keep from falling into the rising tide.
Officials said about 22,000 people live in areas at risk of flooding in Russian-controlled areas on the eastern side of the river, while 16,000 live in the most critical zone in Ukrainian-held territory on the western side — areas like those evacuated on Tuesday.
The United Nations said at least 16,000 people have already lost their homes, and efforts were underway to provide clean water, money, and legal and emotional support to those affected. Evacuations on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river were ferrying people to cities including Mykolaiv and Odesa to the west.
“While towns and villages in downstream Dnieper River are going under water, the human and environmental cost of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam is a huge humanitarian disaster — and the international community must unite to bring those responsible to justice,” said Amnesty International’s regional director for Eastern Europe Marie Struthers.
“The rules of international humanitarian law specifically protect dams, due to the dangers their destruction poses to civilians,” she said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the flood caused by the dam breach was projected “to have severe and longer-term consequences on the humanitarian situation in the area” such as by moving mines and explosive ordnance to new areas.
Kherson, which was liberated by Ukrainian forces last fall, has already seen some of the worst from Russia’s blitzkrieg campaign against Ukraine — alleged rape, arbitrary killings, and enforced disappearances during months of Russian occupation.
Today, shelling regularly continues from across the nearby front line demarcated by the river.
AP writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jamey Keaten in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.