A Ukrainian family’s desperate journey from Russian-occupied Kherson to safety in Poland: ‘We could see the artillery shells flying above us’

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Kyiv, UKRAINE — Artillery shells exploded around 56-year-old Orthodox priest Father Mykola Dovgan as he pushed his son, Sergey, in a wheelchair along the empty country road in southern Ukraine.

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Gaunt with slicked-back hair and a gray goatee, Mykola had maintained his priestly demeanor when he fled his home in fear of his life.

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But on that fateful and terrifying day Mykola told MarketWatch that his normally implacable manner dissolved into desperation. He led his family through an intense barrage of artillery fire between Ukrainian and Russian army positions outside his home in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine now under Russian occupation.

The fiercely contested battlefront erupted in their path after they had to abandon their car to make the six-mile journey on foot to Snigurovka village, Mykola said.

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,After two days of packing and preparing, Mykola and his wife, son and mother-in-law were ready. At 5 am, with their most precious belongings stuffed into their 1993 Renault Espace, they set off on a perilous journey to an uncertain future.,

Gripped with fear, Mykola’s 55-year-old wife, Tatiana, and her ailing 72-year-old mother, Yelizaveta, struggled to keep pace with him. Tears streamed down their faces, he said, but they persevered through a hail of flying shrapnel.

Time was their enemy, but it was God who Mykola blamed. He had seen three years of war as a chaplain but still found himself screaming. “It was an explosion of nerves, a scream from my soul,” he recalled, “I screamed at God. How could he do such a thing to me and my family? How could He even exist?”

The same despairing thoughts haunted Mykola 27 years earlier when his son was born with chronic cerebral palsy. The illness meant Sergey, who was blind and unable to walk or talk, would use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“For six years, I asked God why he was worse off than other children,” Mykola told MarketWatch. “It was painful, but our son eventually brought us happiness. And this brought me closer to God.”

Sergey’s birth set Mykola on a religious quest that ultimately led to the priesthood. Ordained in 2010, he served as an army chaplain during the war in East Ukraine from 2014 to 2016, before settling into a life as a parish priest in Kherson with his wife, Sergey and his eldest son, Sasha.

Their life remained peaceful until the night of Feb. 24, 2022.

Aware that the Russians knew of his role as territorial army battalion chaplain, Mykola had kept a low profile throughout the occupation, resolving to stay indoors and help his wife, Tatiana, take care of Sergey.

When his fellow Orthodox priest Father Serhiy Chudynovych was kidnapped and tortured, however, the alarm sounded in the local Orthodox community. Chudynovych, the rector of a well-known church in Kherson, was a prominent public figure in the community.

Mykola realized he wasn’t safe, but leaving the city was still the riskier option. When he was tipped off that his name was on a list distributed among Russian soldiers, his risk analysis shifted. He sat his family down and convinced them it was time to leave.

After two days of packing and preparing, Mykola and his wife, son and mother-in-law were ready. At 5 am, with their most precious belongings stuffed into their 1993 Renault Espace, they set off on a perilous journey to an uncertain future.

Once a peaceful coastal city

Kherson is — or was — a quiet, balmy coastal city of 280,000 on the west bank of the Dniepr River, about 15 miles from the river’s mouth. An important shipping and shipbuilding base only 80 miles from Crimea, it was a key strategic target for Russia’s invading forces when they arrived on the morning of Feb. 25.

Waiting to confront them at the Antonovskiy Bridgea key junction spanning the Dniepr River and connecting Kherson to the east, was a small Ukrainian army force supported by Kherson’s territorial army battalion — a group of 500 trained volunteers and veterans armed only with machine guns.

Among them was Mykola. As battle chaplain, he did not take up arms, but was in the thick of the action, helping to evacuate the wounded and administering to the dead.

The battle for Antonovskiy Bridge was intense and lasted three days, resulting in hundreds of casualties on both sides. Russian forces ultimately prevailed, forcing the smaller Ukrainian army back toward Mykolaev, 60 miles to the west. Kherson’s territorial army fighters lost 50 comrades before retreating to their families and to a new life of enforced anonymity under Russian occupation.

For almost two months, the ever-thickening shadow of Russian rule has enveloped Kherson. Multiple checkpoints erected on all routes out of the city have practically cut it off from the outside world.

,‘Heavily armed Russian police and operatives are sent out in civilian clothing to patrol the streets in cars stolen from Kherson residents. Their behavior is characterized by widespread looting, random acts of violence and summary arrests.’,

The regional administration building has been commandeered by the Russian army and the FSB as a joint headquarters. From there, heavily armed Russian police and operatives are sent out in civilian clothing to patrol the streets in cars stolen from Kherson residents. Their behavior is characterized by widespread looting, random acts of violence and summary arrests. Murders and unexplained disappearances are common.

Fearful Kherson residents remain indoors until they have to go out for food or medicine. One of them, Oksana, agreed to speak to MarketWatch on the condition of her surname be withheld.

An NGO worker and fundraiser for volunteer groups in Kherson, Oksana spends most of her time at home with her 9-year-old boy who attends school online. “A week ago, I met a friend in a park,” she said. “But that’s a rare treat, because even having meetings in public is dangerous.”

Economic activity has all but ceased in the city, Oksana said from Kherson over Signal Video. “Supermarkets are empty, but people can buy vegetables in street markets. The problem is finding cash. Exchanging cash from credit cards is now a big business, but everything is twice or three times the normal price and queues are really long. I had to wait three hours this week just to buy milk.”

Services such as water, electricity, and public transport are working but any sense of normal life, according to Oksana, is an illusion.

“The Russians couldn’t find any pro-Russian fanatics within the city administration to run it for them,” so for two months the Mayor and his team remained in the city’s administration building. That changed on Tuesday, when the Russians took over the building and replaced the Ukrainian with the Russian flag.

The self-declared new “deputy-head” of the Kherson region administration, Kirill Stremousov, declared that the region would “move into the Ruble zone.”

Fearing that this change in currency is another step towards holding a “fake” referendum to declare Kherson an independent republic, a couple of hundred Kherson residents protested in the city’s center square this week, and were dispersed with stun grenades and tear gas.

Meanwhile, Oksana recalled, the Russians have concentrated their efforts on trying to root out and neutralize members of the Ukrainian police, secret service or territorial army, all of whom are hiding at home with their families. They’ve had limited success with this, according to the regional prosecutor’s office, which has reported 137 people, including several journalists, abducted by the Russians in the city. Their fate remains unknown.

,‘The problem is finding cash. Exchanging cash from credit cards is now a big business, but everything is twice or three times the normal price and queues are really long. I had to wait three hours this week just to buy milk.’,


— Oksana, a resident of Kherson, a Ukrainian city under Russian control

Every night, flashes from distant artillery explosions light up the horizon, Oksana said, and the loud rumbling that follows is a reminder both to Kherson’s civilians and to its occupying Russian forces of the battle that may engulf the city.

Recent reports suggest the Ukrainian army is gaining the upper hand. If true, retaking the city, the first to be fully occupied by the Russians, would mark a stunning victory for Ukraine.

Territorial army troops in Kherson are waiting for the Ukrainian army to advance closer to the city…

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Credit: www.marketwatch.com /

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