It’s hard to escape the irony as Anatoli Nikolai sweeps up the shattered glass outside a building whose windows have been blown out in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.
The sidewalk the 81-year-old is cleaning is part of Moscow Street.
It sits just around the corner from the regional administrative headquarters destroyed by a Russian airstrike on Tuesday, killing 20 people, injuring dozens more and shaking blocks around it.
“I can’t explain it to myself, why massacres are being committed by people who are sent here,” Nikolai said. “We are still brothers.”
But trying to tell relatives in Russia what Moscow is doing to Ukraine is like talking to “zombies”, he said.
“I was calling my nephew, and he said, ‘I don’t believe it. It’s your propaganda. It’s your troops bombing you.'”
Unexpected and fierce resistance
Mykolaiv is a predominantly Russian-speaking city of almost 500,000 people, although many have left since the invasion began on February 24. The Kremlin expected its troops to meet little resistance here, but instead the battle for this strategic territory took root.
In the past, Mykolaiv was one of the biggest shipbuilding centers of the Russian Empire and the seat of its Black Sea Navy for more than 100 years.
Today, the city enjoys hero status among Ukrainians for repelling – for weeks now – Russian forces attempting to advance west along the southern coast towards Odessa from Kherson, the only major city. Ukraine entirely under Russian control.
If Russia were to attempt an amphibious landing to capture Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port and a key strategic asset, it would need a supply route from Kherson, most analysts suggest.
But Kherson is about 70 kilometers east of Mykolaiv and, as fighting continues in the territory between the towns, the Ukrainians claim to have managed to repel the Russians.
However, this success has come at a high cost.
On Wednesday, Vitaliy Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv Oblast, as the administrative region is known, said 134 civilians in the region have been killed since the conflict began, including six children.
Kim is widely seen as a thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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Appointed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and hugely popular, Kim regularly posts on social media, mocking the Kremlin and the tactics of the Russians, whom he calls “orcs”.
His Telegram channel has some 700,000 subscribers, and he starts his videos with “Hello, we’re from Ukraine” and gives a peace sign.
This laid-back style under pressure has been credited with helping to keep people calm.
“Civilians are heroes”
Kim says he escaped Tuesday’s airstrike at regional headquarters because he overslept. The missile hit just as people had started their work day.
“I don’t care about buildings and papers,” he told a news conference the day after the strike. “The main problem is [the death of] civilians who are heroes and who [were] work during the war. »
Dr Andrew Rozhok, the hospital’s chief neurosurgeon who treated those seriously injured, said specialists operated on five people injured in the attack.
“These were major operations,” he said, noting that three people were in “extremely critical condition.”
Rozhok said hospitals in the city have come under increased pressure to deal with civilian and military casualties in recent weeks.
WATCH | The civilian cost to hold Mykolaiv:
The neurosurgeon says that although he is horrified that civilians remain under fire and besieged, he has faith in Ukraine’s leadership to defeat Russia.
“It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine,” he said. “We have the will, we have the diligence and, most importantly, we want the freedom.
“We want to be free.”
Tires, explosives and Molotov cocktails
This determination can be seen in the piles of ready-made tires in almost every neighborhood of Mykolaiv, with Molotov cocktails placed nearby in case the Russians try to enter the city.
And locals will tell you that the main bridge over the Southern Bug River, which leads west towards Odessa, is rigged with explosives – and is ready to be blown up to prevent the Russians from crossing if that were to happen.
Some in the city feared that Ukrainian successes around Mykolaiv would inevitably encourage the Russians to use even more brutal tactics in an attempt to capture Odessa.
“They failed to pass through our town,” said Andrey Shevchenko, a local commander of Mykolaiv’s territorial defense units.
“That’s why they are angry with us…and they started bombing and bombing us. In Kharkiv it’s the same,” he said, referring to the northern city. is located along the Ukraine-Russia border, which has been battered by airstrikes since the start of the war. invasion.
Shevchenko accuses the Russians of deliberately bombing civilian areas in Mykolaiv and, more specifically, of violating international law by using cluster munitions which send out numerous “bomblets” on impact.
In the Urochyshche Raketne neighborhood, where many families have summer houses to plant small gardens, Shevchenko pointed to a metal fence machine-gunned with small holes.
Two small craters can be seen in the garden on the other side where munitions would have landed, potentially delivered by a multiple rocket launcher system.
A woman in her 40s was killed in the house next door when a shell ripped through her roof, Shevchenko said.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch also documented reports of cluster munitions attacks in Mykolaiv, including weapon fragments deemed compatible with multiple rocket launcher systems.
Shevchenko says Ukrainian troops pushed Russian positions from the town about 40 kilometers away.
But he also says ground fighting will eventually prove futile unless Western nations agree to “close the skies” to Russian bombardment.
“We can conquer the Russians on land, but not in the air because we have no way to shoot planes and missiles,” he said.
When asked if this means Ukraine will lose, he pauses for a long time, but then replies that Ukraine will win.
There is, however, a caveat.
“With great sacrifices,” he says, qualifying his answer. “Especially among civilians.”
WATCH | War takes a heavy physical and emotional toll on children: