Where do Russian missiles fall
A sixth sense woke up 66-year-old Svitlana Vaselyuk on Tuesday at 5:45 a.m. She had just put on her slippers when, as she was sitting on her bed, a major missile hit her town, shaking her entire house. It was one of dozens of missiles Russia fired at Zaporizhzhya this week, destroying dozens of apartment buildings, historic streets and important infrastructure.
The city, which lies on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, is on Ukrainian-controlled territory in the southeast of the country. The frontline of the war is just 20 miles away and the nuclear power plant that bears the city’s name is only 70 miles away around the Kakhovka Reservoir in Russian-occupied territory.
“Inhuman monsters,” exclaimed Vaselyuk, when she told me about the attack later. The nearest shelter was more than six miles from his house. She knew there were a few strategic targets, potential targets for a Russian attack, in the area.
The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant had recently lost its external power supply and relied on diesel generators to maintain safe operation and manageable temperatures in the reactor core. Could Putin order the destruction of the plant itself, or a nuclear strike against Zaporizhzhya, as he has threatened to do against Ukraine more broadly? Vaselyuk was convinced he could, after all the other unimaginable things that had happened, including the full-scale invasion, the mass graves, the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas.
“‘God, let it not be nuclear,’ I prayed,” she said. “Here in Zaporizhzhya we are ground zero, but we are not ready for nuclear bombs. We have no place to hide from them, no proper shelter with water, food or medicine stored.
Vaselyuk has experience of a nuclear disaster. She had lived through the Chernobyl disaster. “Four days after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, the Soviet authorities paraded us in the May Day parade,” she told me. “I went out with my baby girl instead of staying home with all the doors and windows closed, and now we both have thyroid health issues.”
Still, she did not want to give up Zaporizhzhya. Such fatalism is typical of Ukraine today. After the panic of the first months, people are not ready to give up the defense of their cities. Even Moscow’s threat to use a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine does not cause panic.
Aided by humanitarian aid from around the world, Ukrainian civil society has organized itself, repaired infrastructure and strengthened defences. As bad as things are, with Putin’s attempt to avenge the bombing of the Kerch Bridge last weekend, Vaselyuk was determined to stay put.
An engineer by trade, Vaselyuk struggled to evacuate families with children, packing food rations for displaced Ukrainians still fleeing Mariupol, Melitopol and other towns destroyed in the struggle for the southeast. Each package she prepared included food specially designed to allow people to survive for seven days shielded from outside radiation in the event of a nuclear strike.
But in the back of his mind, there is always the fate of the nuclear power plant. Zaporizhzhya faces a double danger: Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon near the frontline and possible sabotage and destruction of the power plant downstream. “Our city authorities are not preparing us for nuclear fusion,” she said. “People have no information on how to survive it. All I know is that we have to stay indoors for at least three days and then cover exposed skin with damp cloths.
The military leader of Zaporizhzhya, Oleg Buriak, was busy helping the residents who were constantly under attack. The city’s rescue teams were constantly working to extricate the injured from under the rubble. Municipal services had to repair the destroyed power lines, while trying to cope with a shortage of means of transport to evacuate the hundreds of victims. Because Zaporizhzhya Oblast straddles the front line, civilians are constantly arriving. Some 365 people managed to escape from the occupied zone on Monday, including 65 children.
“People were in the basements; they are alive,” Buriak told local television this week. “We provide them with medical aid.”
Russian forces pounded Zaporizhzhya with an array of arsenals: air-launched cruise missiles, air-to-surface missiles from Su-35 jets, Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and S-300 air defense missiles that the Russian military is now uses to attack ground targets. Some analysts see desperation creeping into Russia’s strategy as the country throws everything it has into the fight, including specialized military munitions to attack civilian targets indiscriminately.
“Our brave army destroyed six S-300 systems,” Buriak said. “Russia has been producing them since the 1960s, so they have a lot of S-300 missiles in stock, but those systems are inaccurate.”
Pastor Albert Khomiak has not been able to sleep for the past few nights. He cared for 19 adopted and foster children, some old enough to serve: six are now soldiers defending Ukraine, and three others are preparing to join the army. Among his younger charges, he evacuated seven children to Finland; most of them are handicapped and need care that it is no longer safe to provide in a war zone. Khomiak continues to care for three children in Zaporizhzhya because, as a local pastor, he felt he could not leave his parish.
“When the shelling starts, the children are asleep and I run around the house with my heart racing,” he told me this week. “I don’t know if I should wake them up or if the bombardment is far away and they can sleep a little longer.”
Every day, his parish distributes several tons of food aid delivered by an international Christian mission for displaced families. He was too exhausted to think what a worse escalation could mean. “We are reacting very slowly to this disaster… Our community has finally received iodine tablets,” he explained. “So far this is the only preparation for a nuclear disaster. Nobody knows what to do if the Russians use nuclear missiles.
Volunteers like Pastor Khomiak are the main source of assistance for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people transiting through Zaporizhzhya. But every day, the downtown shelter fills with mothers and children rendered homeless by Russian bombing. “This morning I felt completely lost for the first time in seven months. The main transport company that helped us refused to work under missile attack,” a volunteer named Natalia Aradlyanova told me on Monday as she tried to care for two toddlers. “I have to move at least 36 children. They are very small and terribly stressed.
Help came instead from a US nonprofit, the Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation, which was working to evacuate children from areas currently under Russian bombardment. “No child should have to live with the threat of bombing, genocide and actual nuclear meltdown,” co-founder Andrew Duncan told me on Wednesday from the base of the foundation in Poland. “It’s time for the West to do the honorable thing and protect the children of Ukraine.”