Russian forces in control of a Ukrainian town on the occupied southern side of the Dnipro River near Kherson have been accused of preventing evacuation efforts after flooding caused by the Nova Kakhovka dam bursting.
The town of Oleshky appears to be the worst-affected area in territory controlled by Russia. Videos and photographs from the scene have depicted severe flooding and residents stranded on the roofs of their cottages.
Reports have emerged indicating that Russian forces were preventing local volunteers from evacuating people in Oleshky by setting up checkpoints around the town.
Helping to Leave, an organisation that provides aid and services to Ukrainians fleeing the war, said it had been unable to organise evacuations.
“They are not allowing volunteers on boats to enter,” a representative from the group told the Guardian. “[Russian] emergency services are carrying out some evacuation but it’s very selective and it is not enough.”
At least five people have died in Russian-occupied parts of southern Ukraine since the dam burst.
Russian emergency services on Thursday said that evacuations were under way, but some residents and human rights groups criticised Russia’s efforts.
“The Russian emergency services are evacuating a small percentage of people but, judging from the volume of evacuation requests we are receiving, absolutely not as many as they should,” the Helping to Leave representative said.
The representative said their organisation had received more than 350 evacuation requests from people stuck on the Russian-controlled southern bank of the river. One such request, the organisation said, came at midnight from three pensioners who were floating around the town on inflatable mattresses.
Sergei, a local volunteer, said the situation in Oleshky was “bad”.
“There is almost no contact with the people there. No one is allowed into the town and those who make it out on boats are placed into buses and driven away,” he said. “We tried reaching Oleshky but checkpoints have been set up all around the town. A lot of people are waiting to be evacuated. We have heard stories of people drowning, but we can’t confirm because there is no access.”
There appeared to be no phone signal in Oleshky on Thursday, leaving many relatives to frantically search online for information about their loved ones.
Svetlana, an Oleshky native who moved to Kherson after the city’s liberation last autumn, told the Guardian her mother and aunt remained in the town.
“My mother told me yesterday that they would go on the roof until someone rescues them,” she said.
“The local authorities didn’t instruct them what to do. I am calling the Russian emergency services all the time but they aren’t helping … Russia has just forgotten about them.”
Local Telegram channels were also full of desperate messages from relatives, asking for their loved ones to be rescued.
One message read: “SOS!!! Can anyone with a boat help? Cottagers Anna .. and her husband have been sitting on their roof since morning, praying for rescue. They’ve raised a white flag. It’s the first house on the right. Help!!!”
Another said: “Help! How can people in Oleshky be saved? Everyone in the Red Army district is sitting on the roof, waiting for assistance. Animals are sinking, drowning.”
The Kazkova Dibrova zoo on the Russian-held riverbank was completely flooded and all 300 animals were dead, a representative said via the zoo’s Facebook account.
There appeared to be isolated reports of Ukrainian volunteers on boats performing daring rescue operations in Russian-occupied land to rescue stranded locals.
In one video on social media, a mother and her young son are seen being evacuated by boat and brought across the Dnipro to Kyiv-controlled territory. The mother and son are then seen thanking the Ukrainian volunteers.
In an address on Wednesday evening, Zelenskiy said it was impossible to predict how many people would die in Russian-occupied parts of Kherson due to the flooding, urging a “clear and rapid reaction from the world” to support victims.
He also severely criticised the UN and the Red Cross, who he said were not helping the relief effort.
Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, similarly called on international humanitarian organisations to provide assistance on the occupied southern bank.
“We appeal to you to take charge of evacuating people from the territory of Kherson oblast occupied by Russia. We must save the lives of people whom the occupiers have condemned to death,” Shmyhal said.
On Thursday, Zelenskiy visited the flood-stricken section of Kherson. The Ukrainian president said more than 2,000 people had been rescued from the flooding.