The family wanted to escape across the river to protect themselves from the Russians. Only the mother survived the trip

After the Russians occupied her village of Verkhny Rohachyk, she, her husband and her son began to worry about what would happen next. With a rucksack on their backs and important documents, they therefore embarked on the apparently easier route to areas controlled by Ukraine. On April 7, a family of three and eleven others boarded a locally operated evacuation boat to cross the Dnieper River from the Russian-occupied southern region of Kherson to Ukrainian-held territory of other side of the river.

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Hauling boats from the shore of the fishing village of Pervomaivka must have been routine. According to Oleksander Vilkula, head of the Kryu Rihu military administration in the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, this was the seventh evacuation by boat from this village to the area on the northern bank of the Dnieper.

According to Julie and three other survivors, the short pilgrimage to safety turned into a bloodbath. Russian missiles and gunfire targeted the ship after it inadvertently entered the front line.

death cruise

When the ship’s navigator reported that the group was approaching the Russian village of Osokorivka, the morning silence was quickly interrupted by the sound of rockets exploding, survivors said. Vladimir crawled into Julia’s arms and bled. “My husband behind me also fell on top of me when he was shot in the head,” Julia told CNN. His voice was calm and monotonous, seemingly devoid of emotion.

Four people were killed in the attack that day. Oleh was among the three who died directly on the ship. Vladimir succumbed to his injuries shortly afterwards in hospital. Another victim was a lawyer who allegedly traveled to the Kherson region to rescue her son and provide humanitarian aid.

Roman Shelest, head of the Kryvyi Rih Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office, told CNN the boat entered the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces and was shelled 70 meters from shore. One of the survivors, who did not want to be named for security reasons, explained that the boat had been lost in a smoke screen probably created by the Russians. However, this claim could not be verified.

“The firing was carried out using a multiple missile launch system, probably Grad, but we won’t be able to say the exact type of weapon until the investigation is complete,” Schelest added.

Photographs of the aftermath of the attack showed what looked like the remains of a missile on the shore, as well as bullet holes and shrapnel in the hull. “Based on the missiles and ammunition that we saw in the area and on the coast, we were able to determine the direction of the fire. It was coming from the south. This is an area that was occupied and controlled by the armed forces of the Russian Federation at the time,” prosecutor Shelest said.

CNN has requested a comment from the Russian Ministry of Defense. He has repeatedly denied attacking civilians since the start of the war. However, their claims are refuted by proven attacks in which Ukrainian citizens have died.

Trauma and fuzzy memories

Besides Julie, other survivors suffered the trauma of the attack on the ship. “It was sudden, everyone was shocked,” said one. He avoided the shrapnel and luckily survived as he fell from the ship in the opening moments of the bombardment. “I was wearing heavy boots that immediately pulled me down,” he explained.

After the attack, Ukrainian soldiers started shouting from the shores, throwing weapons to the ground and wading through the water to help people. According to one of the passengers, it took up to fifteen minutes to get ashore.

The shock of the moment and the resulting trauma blurred Julia’s memories of the event. “I don’t know why they shot at us. We didn’t understand what the sounds were. I didn’t understand what was going on. I was just in a fog,” she said.

The ruined building in Mariupol, Ukraine, pictured on April 13, 2022

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But she remembered how the soldiers had found her husband’s body and put it on the beach. His son Vladimir was still alive but seriously injured. “He was breathing, had a serious head injury and was losing a lot of blood. We took him to the nearest hospital, about forty kilometers away,” she recalls. “She was operated on. There was still hope that he would save him. But doctors later said it was an injury incompatible with life.”

The woman now lives with relatives in a Ukrainian-controlled area, where she also buried her son and husband. “We wanted this road to be an escape from the occupation. It was like a light at the end of the tunnel for us. It was already unbearable for us to live where we were,” she described. “This war has ruined my family, my life. Killing people must stop. “Immediately,” the woman called.

War crime

The day after the attack, Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s parliamentary human rights commissioner, called the shelling of the ship a war crime and a crime against humanity. In an interview with CNN, the head of the Kryu Rihu military administration, Vilkul, warned that the Russians were doing everything they could to keep civilians away from the occupied territories, because they were apparently afraid that these people would talk about what was going on there. .

The Nesterens are just one of many Ukrainian families whose lives were uprooted or destroyed by the Russian invasion. According to UN agencies, more than 7.1 million people are internally displaced. According to the latest data from the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, at least 198 children have been killed and more than 355 injured since the start of the war.

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