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‘The river, too, is suffering in the war’ Siverskyi Donets — the Ukrainian river that endured the invasion and saved lives — as seen by the photographer Pavlo Dorohoi
While traversing the Belgorod and Rostov regions of Russia, this river is called Seversky Donets. It then enters the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, changing its name to Siverskyi Donets. It then flows across Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where its banks are studded on both sides with Ukrainian towns and villages. From the very start of the war, Siverskyi Donets felt the effects of warfare. It saw combat; its dams and bridges were exploded; armies on both sides forced multiple crossings across the river. The river, in turn, altered the course of the war, and saved lives. Meduza asked the Kharkiv photographer Pavlo Dorohoi to visit Siverskyi Donets, where he used to relax before the war. There, he spoke with the people who live on the banks, in Izium and Staryi Saltiv. They told him that, since the start of the war, the river has come to mean to them something it had never meant before.
Before the war, I would come to Siverskyi Donets to relax with friends. We’d take our kayaks down the river almost every summer. I also liked to sail on the reservoir by Staryi Saltiv. Never once did I think of this river as a possible barrier in combat, or as a source of food or drinking water. These, however, were some important Medieval conditions for founding a city.
But from the very first day of the war, the river became an outpost working to do its part in helping Ukrainians defend their cities. It saw fierce fighting and countless deaths — but it also offered salvation. That’s how it’s been in the village of Staryi Saltiv, and in the city of Izium, both of them located on the banks of this river.
Staryi Saltiv and the crossing
The village of Staryi Saltiv is 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from Kharkiv. It sits in a place where Siverskyi Donets forms the Pechenihy Reservoir. This place is only 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away from the Russian border, and in the first days of the invasion the village was occupied by the Russians. On March 5, to hold them back from advancing towards Kharkiv, the Ukrainian army blew up the bridge that crossed the river near Staryi Saltiv.
The fighting around Staryi Saltiv destroyed 80 percent of its buildings and houses. Nearly 4,000 people used to live here, but now it’s less than 100. Others are just beginning to come back to the liberated territory. The bridge across Siverskyi Donets has not yet been rebuilt, and people have to cross by boat. It takes a six-hour drive to get to Vovchansk, a city 30 kilometers away on the other side of the river, and people prefer to get across by water.
The volunteers Ihor, Denis, and Anton transport people across Siverskyi Donets near Staryi Saltiv. At first, it was just Anton. In the early spring, he got people across in a sledge, and when the ice melted, he began to take them by boat. Because of constant use, the bottom of the boat has worn down to a wafer: “One trip there and back, and it’s time to scoop out the water,” Anton says. Later, they got a second boat. Both of the boats are motorized, but good fuel is hard to find, and usually they just have to row.
Now, the weather is cold and windy. The volunteers work every day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They do this free of charge, getting anyone and anything across the river: mopeds, bikes, medications, humanitarian aid, and people. While I was there, they transported an elderly grandma. Some people want to go to Vovchansk or nearby places to see what may have happened to their homes there. Others want to move their families from Vovchansk to the Staryi Saltiv and Kharkiv side. People are constantly moving from bank to bank. Every ninety minutes, the volunteers make 10–15 trips, taking turns rowing.
This is my first time here since the start of the invasion, and I see how the river has changed: water has receded from the banks; the Pechenihy reservoir has become shallow, because of the damage to its dam. The river, too, is suffering in the war. It has suffered from shelling, ruined dams, sunken vehicles, and spilled fuel.
Siverskyi Donets divides Izium into two parts. On March 7, the Russian forces entered the northern part of the city on the left bank. The Ukrainian army then retreated to the right bank, exploding the bridges across the river to stop the advance of the Russian army with its equipment towards the city center, also located on the right bank.
For several weeks, fighting went on, from bank to bank. Kremenets, a mountain on the right bank of Siverskyi Donets, became the Ukrainian army’s strategic foothold. Because of this, people on the left bank of Izium, whose homes were facing the mountain, had Russian artillery deployed right in their front yards. Serhiy Chernyak, who lives on the left bank, recalled: “The other side held on tight. From over here, the Russians were firing at them with their everything — with tanks and cannons and the ‘Grads.’ For a whole day without a break.”
For several weeks, the Russian army tried to force a crossing of the river by building pontoon bridges. The Ukrainians managed to keep up with demolishing their pontoons. An Izium local named Anton Chernyshov says that, once, the AFU let the Russians complete a pontoon bridge and get 10–15 units of equipment on the crossing. Then they fired at them, sinking everything into the river.
I’ve spoken with locals who live right by the river. Almost every household on that street had a boat in the yard — either an inflatable or a metal one. After the Russian army took the left bank of Siverskyi Donets, and the AFU blew up all the bridges, residents had no way left for evacuating to the right bank. Some people dared to try to get across by boat; some swam, despite the cold. Serhiy, who eventually managed to evacuate to Slovyansk, recalled:
I came to the bank, the place where I was born and grew up swimming. I stripped down to my trunks. I had a plastic package left over from some sugar — so I stuffed my clothes into that package, and swam. Just like that. I’m a good swimmer. It doesn’t even take very long, just 60–70 meters to get across. But the water was close to freezing. When I got to the other side, there was ice all along the bank.
In spite of the Ukrainian resistance, by late March, the Russian troops managed to get across the river using pontoons. This took some sacrifices: Nikolay Ovcharenko, the deputy head of the Russian Western Military District’s engineering corps, was killed while building a pontoon crossing. He was among the highest-ranking Russian officers who died during the invasion.
By April 1, the Russians had fully occupied Izium.
During the occupation, the Russian soldiers went out on boats to fish in the river. The locals were only permitted to fish from the shore, and only sometimes. Most of the time, people just hid in their basements and shelters. Men would go out for water; women tried not to go out at all.
Sometimes people still managed to get from one bank to the other, even though the Russian troops had forbidden it. One of the locals told me:
In June, a friend of mine decided to float across the river on an inflatable mattress. I kept trying to talk him out of it. But he really wanted to see another friend of his who had cancer. They weren’t letting anyone use the pedestrian bridge. This was all the more complicated because he was quite a large man, about two meters tall, and quite heavy, too. He went out at dawn, bringing along some food on his mattress. And at dawn the next day, he came back.
Another man I speak to lives on the waterfront. He tells me that four kilometers (a couple of miles) upstream from his house, the Russians had set up a pontoon crossing. The Ukrainian army demolished it. The Russians built it again. This went on for a while. He watched the pontoon bridge appear, get demolished, and reappear again — while thinking all the while that it was the only connection between himself and the place where his mother lives on the other side.
Once, while sitting on the bank, he saw two corpses of Russian soldiers floating downstream. Since then, he no longer likes to swim in Siverskyi Donets.
The shelling of Izium left people without communications, and also without electricity, gas, and water. This is how things are to this day. Every person I spoke to said to me that, at least once, they had to get drinking water from the river. Although the city does have a well, that well could not keep up with the need for water. Now, people get drinking water from two streams, and water for washing still comes from Siverskyi Donets.
Following the fighting that took place here, many unexploded shells and “petal” mines are still scattered along the banks of Siverskyi Donets. The people here only walk on well-tested footpaths; both the river and its banks are unsafe. Sadly, this is how it will be, for some time.
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