MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — In the suburbs of this battered port city in southern Ukraine — once the shipbuilding hub of the country — the Ukrainian military has begun a counteroffensive to liberate the Black Sea coast from Russian occupation.
But Moscow’s war to seize land is also a war against civilians, a deliberate attempt to destroy civilian infrastructure and terrorize the population. Vladimir Putin’s grotesque claims that the Russian army doesn’t strike civilian infrastructure are contradicted by the endless shelling of residential neighborhoods.
On Friday, the day before I arrived in Mykolaiv, Russia carried out a typical attack — on a bus stop and a bread line. At 9:30 a.m., Russians artillery fired cluster munitions from miles away at the bus shelter, which is located next to a small square where an aid group was distributing bread. Seven civilians were killed and 17 injured.
When I visited the scene on Saturday, the blood and bodies had been cleared away, but the plexiglass shelter was punched full of holes.
Cluster munitions scatter small bomblets filled with metal shards over a wide area, which makes them the perfect weapon to kill civilians, including children. Human Rights Watch has documented the Russian military’s extensive use of these evil weapons as Russian forces repeatedly target residential areas in Mykolaiv — and other Ukrainian cities and towns.
The only military object in this residential neighborhood of nine- and 10-story apartment buildings is a World War II memorial behind the bus stop that consists of an old Soviet tank bearing a plaque reading: “Glory to Soviet heroes, fallen for the motherland.”
Back then, the Red army was anti-fascist as it fought the Nazis. Now Ukrainians call the Russian army “Ruscists.” Vladimir Putin has, literally, smeared the memory of those Soviet heroes with Ukrainian blood.
I visited the intensive care unit of Mykolaiv Hospital No. 5, where the wounded were evacuated from the bus stop. Nearly all of the hospital’s windows had been shattered by a missile strike and were covered with plastic.
Viktoria Kamarova, whose 21st birthday is Aug. 3, was laid out on a hospital cot, her shattered femur held together with a metal rod and pins, with bandages wrapped around her legs and arms. Her mother, Alona, sitting slumped and unmoving on a cot opposite her daughter, appeared on the verge of collapse.
Summoning up the energy to talk, Viktoria whispered, “We were going to cross the street at the zebra” — a reference to the white striped lines on the asphalt. Then things went black.
Her dad had accompanied her as she was walking her dog, which died instantly. Her father, who tried to protect her with his body, died at the hospital. Viktoria started to weep when she spoke of them.
Her mother, who had been watching them through an apartment window, rushed to the bus stop even though missiles still threatened to fall, but couldn’t save her husband.
“The Russians are evil,” Viktoria said, her voice rising. “They are just shelling civilians every day.” Her eyes watered again.
Gathering herself, she told me she has an undergraduate degree in English and was planning to teach, but “now I am in shock.” The doctors say it will take six months and several operations for her to walk again.
As I was leaving the hospital, the elevator attendant grabbed me, and asked my translator, “Is she an American? Tell her I need to talk to her.”
When we reached the first floor, the attendant, Valentina Ivanova, marched off the elevator, turned to me and shouted, “These are the words of a Ukrainian babushka,” using the Russian word for grandmother. “Putin is a serial killer. He should be tied to a pole and executed, for every life he has taken, for every murdered child.”
Pointing upward toward the floor with the wounded, Ivanova demanded, “What is their guilt? To be standing at the bus stop?
“And one more request,” she continued, hardly stopping for a breath. “Give us more weapons so our guys won’t keep dying.
“Everyone promises us [more weapons], but we need more power to push away the occupiers and collaborators from here,” Ivanova said. “Just don’t wait for us to be killed and shot.” She stared at me as if willing me to grasp her message.
Then, as the bell rang for her elevator, Ivanova marched back to her job.
As I left the city, we drove by the shattered Mykolaiv Hotel, bombed last week. I saw university buildings that had been targeted. Most downtown buildings are closed, windows boarded up.
On Saturday night, Mykolaiv suffered a massive shelling attack, the heaviest of the war so far, according to its mayor.
This is not the “normal” destruction of a war between two enemy nations, or two warring tribes. I’ve seen tribal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; this killing is engineered by a single man.
These attacks are outright murder, orchestrated by Putin, who has launched an imperialist war to annex a neighboring country. Russia targets civilians as a warning that if Ukraine won’t submit to Russian domination, Moscow will destroy its cities and their people.
Yet the warning isn’t working the way Putin planned. The anger he has stirred up within the Ukrainian military is fueling a passion to liberate Ukrainian land no matter the human and material cost. I hear this from soldiers and from Ukrainians who have chosen to remain in the country.
Over and over, however, I’m told that this resolve is based on the West’s continued willingness to provide Ukrainians with the long-range weapons they need to counter Russia’s massive arsenal — and to do so more quickly. Without those weapons, the human cost of Ukraine’s defiance becomes almost unthinkable.
Since departing Hospital No. 5, I’ve thought repeatedly of Viktoria Kamarova — bloodied, bandaged, and struggling to speak from her hospital bed. “I won’t leave Mykolaiv because this is my city and Ukraine is my motherland,” she insisted. The Ukrainian counteroffensive will determine whether she can keep her word.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com.