The team of the Civil Network OPORA is telling about the life of de-occupied communities: what Russians left behind, and what issues local authorities need to address in the first place to be able to bring back people and normal life. 

This time, the story is about Snihurivka (Mykolayiv Oblast) that has been under the occupation for eight months. Russians used Snihurivka to continue their advance to Mykolayiv. That is why the de-occupation of the place was a precondition for the liberation of Kherson by the Ukrainian army, last November. 

Strategic meaning of Snihurivka for the Russian army

Successful driving-out of Russian troops from the Dnipro river right bank in autumn 2022 was largely contingent on the liberation of a place named Snihurivka located in the east of Mykolayiv Oblast. Russians made the place a critical battleground as the geographical features  allowed the control over the high points.

A motor highway and a railway run through Snihurivka, and Russian military  used them as logistical arteries. Ex-commander of defense forces of the city of Mykolayiv, Major General Dmytro Marchenko  said last summer that Snihurivka was a strategic junction, that is why Russians had held it occupied for such a long time. Also, the place was used by the Russians to advance on Mykolayiv, although without success. 

Another reason the Russians were interested in the town’s occupation is economic. Snihurivka  territorial community hosts successful industrial enterprises and over 200 farmsteads, including large agrarian companies. Russian troops wanted to establish control over the business, and pillaged the farmers’ assets, especially when they realized they would have to retreat.  

Before the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Right Bank area, the ISW analysts said that losing Snihurivka could aggravate the isolation of Kherson from the east, and increase its vulnerability to Ukrainian round-up. Therefore, it would contradict any possible logic to keep the huge region’s capital without control over Snihurivka. Eventually, Kherson was liberated on November, 11, the day after the control was resumed over Snihurivka and other places in the Right Bank. During that campaign, Russian troops had to retreat to the Dnipro left bank, under the pressure of Ukraine’s Defense Forces. 

That was the end to Snihurivka’s eight-months-long occupation. 

Magnitude of the Destruction 

Trying to understand how Snihurivka survived the occupation, and how they are recovering, OPORA talked with an anonymous local activist.

Our interviewee shared that Russian troops seized the city on March, 19, 2022. Several days before, they had been actively shelling it and striking from air. The first such strikes took place on March, 14, 2022. That is when they struck the local territorial center of conscription and social care (military conscription center — ed.) and private households. After that, Russian army continued the shelling of residential housing; they struck schools, municipal and private companies. 

As a result, most people left the place. According to OPORA’s interviewee, during the occupation, of the 23,000 residents, the community was left with as few as 7,000. After the liberation, people started returning, now hosting about 13,000 people. 

However, not every person has a place to return. In the interview to the TV channel “Mart,” the head of Snihurivka City Military Administration, Ivan Kukhta, told that about 1,500 private households were destroyed by the occupiers (50% of the housing stock). 260 of them are not recoverable. 

The interviewee of the Civil Network OPORA also shared that currently local authorities were documenting all damages. They also started the gradual reconstruction of the housing. Thus, recently, Snihurivka community received access to the “e-Recovery” program in Diia. You can use it to apply for the compensation for the damaged property. According to our interviewee, in the first week, 79 people submitted their applications, not accounting for those who were provided with construction materials for the urgent reconstruction works by Ukrainian and international charities. For example, the roof slates for the reconstruction of the damaged rooftops. 

There are other relief programs available, too. Some of them are funded by international donors. For example, on March, 13, 2023, the implementation of the project started in Snihurivka community, as supported by the U.K. Winterization initiative to reconstruct the damaged buildings. According to Ivan Kukhta, the project would not transfer money to the bank cards, like in the “e-Recovery” initiative. In contrast, they will engage a subcontractor to perform the approved scope of work. 

In addition, citizens could apply for cash assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an international charitable foundation Caritas. In both cases, the cash amounts paid are UAH 6,660 (UAH 2,200 installments during three months). Snihurivka residents affected by the flooding following the blast at Kakhovka dam orchestrated by Russians are  eligible for a one-off payment of UAH 5,000 from the government, and UAH 6,600 from the International Organization of Migration. 

In addition, with the support from charities, a free of charge laundry center was opened in Snihurivka. The community  received ambulance vehicles, gravel for the reconstruction of bridges, tires for municipal transport, and other things.

Our interviewee also shared that people are also bringing businesses to the community. Agrarian companies are resuming their operations, and they are the key employers in the region. Retail food chains and gas stations re-start, as well as coffee places, hairdresser’s salons, and small stores. In April, 2023, the railway connection resumed with Mykolayiv city; in February, public transport  was launched for comfortable travel in the hromada territory, as it did not run during the occupation. It was made possible because charities donated to Snihurivka modern buses because Russian military stole the buses the city used to have before the full-scale war. 

Life Under the Occupation: No Electricity, No Water Supply

Another challenge faced by local authorities after the de-occupation was the resumption of water and power supply. Our interviewee shared that Snihurivka residents had to live without any electricity, centralized water and gas supply for eight months of the occupation. 

When shelling the city, the occupiers damaged the power grids. The power cut was a major issue. The community is little covered by gas pipelines, which is why people could not get any heating with no power supply, as houses mostly use electric heaters. 

Electric kitchen stoves are most widespread in the town, and they could not be used, either. That is why Snihurivka people staying under the occupation had to cook outside in open fires. In best-case scenarios, they used gas cylinders that could be bought in the then occupied Kherson. 

According to our storyteller, in summer 2022, Russian military tried to resume the power supply but in vain. Instead, they invented another solution to “help” people: they stole solar panels from the premises of solar power generating companies to sell them to local population at UAH 500 to 1,500 a unit. The solar panels helped as people could at least charge their mobile phones or turn on the lights inside. Later, after the de-occupation, one such company asked local residents to return the solar panels stolen by russians.  

The power supply was fully resumed in the community last December, several weeks after the liberation. Our informer told us that a major obstacle in that process were land mines. According  to power engineers, the territory around Snihurivka is estimated as most intensely mine-infested area in the region. The occupiers would plant the bombs anywhere they could, even at cemeteries, and private households. The teams of power people from other regions of Ukraine also came to help recover the electricity supply. However, unfortunately, there were some accidents when deminers and power engineers were killed in a mine blast. Local residents also tripped and were blown up by land mines.

After the Liberation: No Water, But Also No Russians

According to Ivan Kukhta, almost immediately after the de-occupation, water supplied was resumed in the city. The same as before the full-scale invasion, you cannot drink tap water, but it is good for cooking. Regional authorities and charities helped with power generators. It helped start the water pumps. Some areas had the water supplier sooner, others had to wait a bit longer, but by the end of December, all of the community could enjoy water supply.

However, the process did not go without problems because the water pipes in Snihurivka were not in the best condition. “The pipes were damaged by explosions, and also because they were idle for eight months. Another challenge came with the resumed water supply: how to liquidate the pipe breaks with no available maintenance machinery,“ shares Kukhta in his interview to a Mykolayiv outlet “News N.”

This information was also confirmed by OPORA informer. He shared that Russians stole all the utility company machinery, and also pillaged local people and businesses. “They took away everything they could from people. Domestic appliances, vehicles, tractors, combines. If they could not take something along, they would damage or destroy it. They took away fire engines, ambulances, and light towers of the regional electricity company, a private company,” tells he. 

Our interviewee added that the owners managed to locate the whereabouts of some vehicles that had GPS trackers on. For example, some machinery was taken to the Caucasus, to the republic of Dagestan. 

Regional authorities and private charities helped procure some machinery for repair works. 

Life of the Community After the Blast in the Kakhovka Dam

A new challenge in supplying the community with water came from the blast of Khakhovka dam blown up by Russian occupiers in early June, 2023. However, our informer told us that utility workers managed to take out the water pumps from the wells in due time, before the Dnipro river water filled them.

“That is how we saved them. If we had failed to act proactively, we would have needed to buy new water pumps. Instead, we managed to quickly bring them back and we keep track of the water levels continuously. Regretfully, the water from the city water network is still non-potable. It can only be used for washing the clothes and for sanitary needs, such as to wash down the toilet or wash the floor. You can’t drink it or use it for cooking, even when boiled,” explained he.

Today, utility companies organized daily deliveries of potable water brought to 15 or 20 places at the same time. Also, according to our interviewee, military administration are working on the improvement of water quality. In particular, authorities plan to drill new water wells and separately connect each city district to those water sources. That water might as well be good for drinking, at least after filtering with the help of regular household filters that any resident could install at their place. Nevertheless, it will all depend on the wear and tear of the waterpipe. 

Another challenge coming after Russians blasted Kakhovka dam was the flooding affecting 12 villages in the community area, and the town of Snihurivka. The water rose up to 6+ meters. Our informer told us that the total number of flooded houses was 375, where from they evacuated ab. 700 residents, including children. For many households, water destroyed almost all property. No furniture, or equipment survived. The water flushed inside the houses a lot of mud. The walls and the ceiling could not withstand, and many houses are now not livable.

The most difficult situation developed in Afanasiyivka, a village surrounded by little lakes and floodplains. It was connected with the other part of the community by three bridges that went under water during that flooding. It made Afanasiyivka stay without transportation for several days. They literally became an island.

It caused a humanitarian disaster. Some people from the flooded houses have been successfully evacuated. Others, who stayed, could use some food delivered by boats. 75 private households in the village were fully flooded, and the total of 171 houses were affected. In addition, the water flooded their gardens, the source of food and earning for local citizens.

However, the water receded but the consequences of Russian terror acts will last and will long be felt for local citizens who had not been waiting for the Russians, although they came and ruined their lives.