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Rescue operation after dam collapse shows Ukrainians’ resilient spirit

At first, even as the waters were rising, Viktor Ivankhnenko hoped the one-storey home he had built on a Russian-occupied island in the Dnipro River would be safe. But as day wore into night, it became clear his optimism was misplaced.

By 3am on Wednesday, Viktor, 66, and his wife, Nadiia, knew it was time to leave. Packing up what possessions they could, they got into a boat and paddled desperately to a neighbour’s two-storey house as the waters enveloped their own.

Reaching out his right hand, he showed off a burst blister from the effort – and then he described the fate of his home. “It’s underwater, completely underwater. Well, just the chimney is above, just the chimney,” he said.

Rescuers had brought the couple to Kherson by boat on Wednesday lunchtime, delivering them to a makeshift port that before the flooding was a nondescript urban crossroads. On Monday it had been 500 metres from the banks of the river, but then the dam upstream at Nova Kakhovka had burst.

Their home on Potemkin Island was “in the grey zone”, Nadiia said, a contested area in the river delta where fighting has been largely unreported. The nearest troops were Russian and fled on Tuesday, Viktor said, their positions presumably lost to the flood water.

For a man who may have lost his house, Viktor was astonishingly cheerful, partly because the flooding had prompted his liberation – and a chance to reunite with his family in Kherson. After months of being cut off, he said, “I feel reborn,” glad to be back in Ukrainian-controlled territory and looking forward to living with his son in the city “on the ninth floor”.

Ukrainians in Kherson said it had been possible to rescue people from Russian-held areas on the islands, such as Viktor and Nadiia, and even across the river, because the invaders had had to retreat to avoid the flood. There were rumours that Russian artillery had been forced back too.

The port in the street is about 1.5 miles (2.5km) from the pre-flood frontline, and those who enter Kherson know it has been at risk from merciless Russian shelling. Two police officers were injured on Tuesday when another rescue point was hit but on Wednesday it was peaceful at lunchtime as the evacuation effort went ahead.

It is far too soon be sure about the shelling risk in Kherson but, as Viktor’s story demonstrates, suddenly the frontlines in the 15-month conflict have been changed amid the humanitarian and environmental catastrophe unleashed by the dramatic breach of the dam.

At the crossroads turned rescue point, the water levels were still rising, though more slowly than on Tuesday. The water had moved about 200 metres inland overnight and was chest high on the far side of the crossroads. Nevertheless, some were determined to cross through the muddy, grubby, oil-stained water.

Dan Sabbagh