KYIV, Ukraine — Alyona Shkrygalova’s family kept a rubber boat for their daily needs along the broad Dnieper River.
The boat was nothing special until Tuesday, when the Kakhovka dam ruptured and sent a flood from Ukraine’s largest reservoir into cities, towns and countryside downstream in a region that has suffered terribly since Russia invaded the country last year.
Water climbed waist-high on the second floor of Shkrygalova’s two-storey house. Her family began using their boat to scavenge for food, and find houses on higher ground with dry places to sleep. That way, they survived in the war zone until Shkrygalova, 60, spotted a group of people in a boat and raised yellow, white and pink fabrics to get their attention.
“We were scared, we were trying to understand, ‘Who’s approaching us? Are they Russian or not?’ We raised a flag,” Shkrygalova said.
Lucky for her and her family, they were Ukrainian.
According to those stranded and their desperate Ukrainian rescuers, Russian forces are taking rescuers’ boats. Some say the soldiers will only help people with Russian passports.
“Russian soldiers are standing at the checkpoints, preventing (rescuers) from approaching the most-affected areas and taking away the boats,” said one volunteer, Yaroslav Vasiliev. “They are afraid of saboteurs, they suspect everyone.”
Others have been turned away from rescue.
Viktoria Mironova-Baka said she has been in touch from Germany with relatives stuck in the flooded region.
“My relatives said that Russian soldiers were coming up to the house today by boat, but they said they would only take those with Russian passports,” she told The Associated Press. Her grandmother, aunt and more than a dozen other people are taking shelter in the attic of a two-story house.
Details of life in Russian-occupied Ukraine are often unclear. The AP could not independently verify reports of boat seizures or that only Russians were being evacuated, but the account is in line with reporting by independent Russian media.
It’s a sharp contrast to Ukrainian-controlled territory flooded by the dam collapse. Authorities there have aggressively evacuated civilians and brought in emergency supplies. On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to the area to assess the damage. Russian President Vladimir Putin “has no plans at the current moment” to visit affected Moscow-occupied areas, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
The latest disaster in the region began Tuesday, when the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles) upstream from the town of Oleshky, collapsed, sending torrents of water down the Dnieper and across the war’s front lines. The Russian-occupied town across the river from the city of Kherson had a prewar population of 24,000.
Officials say that more than 6,000 people have been evacuated from dozens of inundated cities, towns and villages on both sides of the river. But the true scale of the disaster remains unclear for a region that was once home to tens of thousands of people.
Officials on both sides indicated that about 20 people were known to have died, but the figures could not be independently verified. Oleshky’s Ukrainian mayor, Yevhen Ryshchuk, said corpses were floating to the surface.
Many of the survivors are homeless, and tens of thousands are without drinking water.
The floods ruined crops, displaced land mines, caused widespread environmental damage, and set the stage for long-term electricity shortages.
Ukraine says Russia destroyed the dam with explosives. Russia accuses Ukraine of destroying it with a missile strike.
A drone flown Wednesday by an AP team over the dam’s wreckage revealed none of the scorch marks or shrapnel scars typical of a bombardment. The bulk of the dam itself is now submerged, and The AP images offered a limited snapshot, making it difficult to rule out any scenario. The dam also had been weakened by Russian neglect and water had been washing over it for weeks. It had been under Russian control since the invasion in February 2022.
Compounding the tragedy, Russia has been shelling areas hit by the flooding, including the front-line city of Kherson. On Thursday, Russian shelling echoed not far from a square in Kherson where emergency crews and volunteers were dispensing aid. Some evacuation points in the city were hit, wounding nine people, according to Ukrainian officials.
Russia claims that the Ukrainians also have been shelling flood-hit areas that Moscow controls. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the “selfless work” of Russian emergency teams helping victims of the flooding, noting that they have been working under constant Ukrainian shelling.
“People who suffered from the flooding have been killed by the shelling, including a pregnant woman,” Peskov said.
The floodwaters have irrevocably changed the landscape downstream, and shifted the dynamic of the 15-month-old war.
Ryshchuk, the Oleshky mayor, said that by Thursday afternoon water levels were beginning to fall, but roughly 90% of the city remained flooded.
Ryshchuk fled after Russian forces tried to force him to collaborate, but he remains in close contact with people in and around the city.
Russia says it is helping the region’s civilians. Moscow-appointed regional Gov. Vladimir Saldo claimed over 4,000 people had been evacuated from the flood zones. He shared a video showing empty beds in shelters prepared for evacuees.
Ryshchuk dismisses such talk.
He said some people trying to leave flooded areas were forced back by Russian soldiers who accused them of being “waiters” — people waiting for Ukraine to reclaim control of the region.
Others, who called the Russian-controlled emergency services, were told they would have to wait for help, he said.
“That’s it,” he said. “Yesterday, some Russians came in the morning, took a few people off the roofs, filmed a video, and left. That’s everything they have done as of today.”
The help that made it through has been scattered.
Ukrainian military footage, for instance, showed their forces dropping a bottle of water from a drone to a boy trapped with his mother and sister in the attic of their home near Oleshky. Ukrainian soldiers later evacuated the family and their pets to the city of Kherson, National Police reported.
Much of the help is being organized by volunteers communicating on the encrypted app Telegram. Messages about stranded people, often trapped on the roofs of their houses, appear in these groups every few minutes. Most are posted by relatives in safer areas.
Just one of these volunteer groups has a map showing over 1,000 requests to locate and rescue people, mostly in Oleshky and the nearby town of Hola Prystan.
A woman helping with one of the groups, who spoke on condition her name not be used for fear of reprisals from the Russian occupiers, shared a message with an AP journalist.
“We were looking for a person named Serhii Borzov,” the message read. “He was found. Unfortunately, dead. Our condolences to the relatives.”
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Arhirova reported from Warsaw, Poland.