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Opinion My hometown, now occupied by Russia, is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster

Ukrainians and refugees from other nationalities fleeing the war in Ukraine, who have just arrived are choosing clothes, shoes and toys from those brought to the border by people from all around Poland. (Kasia Strek for The Washington Post)

Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

I grew up in Kherson, a city of 320,000 in southern Ukraine. Every day I walked by the regional administration building on my way to school. That’s why when I saw the video of a man waving two Ukrainian flags in front of a row of Russian tanks, I knew exactly where that was.

The Russians are now occupying my hometown — and also, it seems, my memories.

The mall where we shopped is a smoldering ruin. Another video showed corpses in the park where I used to go as a kid with my mother and my class to feed the swans.

As local officials warn of an impending humanitarian catastrophe, I receive videos and messages from relatives and friends. They tell me the Russians shot at apartment buildings, homes, a school.

Russian forces have the city surrounded. They have also entered parts of the city, which is now running out of food, medicines, diapers, baby food. The ATMs are out of money. “We can still last for maybe three, four days,” the secretary of the city council, Galina Luhova, told The Post.

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Businesses are closed, the electric grid is damaged, and public transportation has stopped.

Ukrainian officials say Russia is not cooperating to create “humanitarian corridors” to help civilians. But the city’s mayor of Kherson remains hard at work. “I’m trying to restart a bread factory,” Mayor Igor Kolykhayev tells me. “I walk the streets to see where the roadblocks are and where trolley buses and buses can pass.” Suddenly I can hear the sound of gunfire over the phone.

The deadly Russian invasion is moving fast from the south. And now Kherson has to make a choice: receive aid from Russia or starve. Kolykhayev hopes that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators can agree on a corridor, but he cannot fully trust the Russians. He wants to find a way to live stream images from the corridor to prevent Russians from attacking it. That’s what Russian-backed forces did against retreating forces in 2014 in the Donbas.

More than 300 people have already died in the city, the mayor tells me. The first mass grave has been dug. It’s hard to tell who ended up in it. Kolykhayev confirms the video of the torn-up bodies from the park is real. He said it’s not possible to identify all the bodies. Some people fighting for Ukraine, some died hiding in homes or bomb shelters, from heart attacks, strokes, asthma.

I am overwhelmed, helpless. I am in the west of the country, unable to send money, food, anything. I close my eyes and I see and feel the city. My father walking me to school, my mother buying me the tastiest korzynky tarts in the world. I had promised my parents that I would come to Kherson soon so that they meet my boyfriend, now fiance. I wanted him to also taste the tarts. Now I have no idea if they will ever meet in person.

“The unknown is the most frightening thing,” Olga, a local schoolteacher who requested her full name not be used for fear of reprisals, tells me during a call. During the invasion, her class was disrupted by the sound of an explosion, but she tried to put on a brave face: “I said: ‘the assignments come first, we’ll discuss this later.’”

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Russians claim they have come to “save” Khersonians from “Nazism”— Putin’s outrageous justification for invading our country. “There are over 100 nationalities living in our city. We don’t know what Nazism is,” Mayor Kolykhayev says. “We are a fertile southern land with fertile black soils and two seas. We are a nation of peace.”

Another resident who also requested anonymity tells me she can’t believe that “the army that fought and beat Hitler in 1944 has turned into a fascist army itself.”

Kolykhayev tells me that he remains committed to Kherson and its citizens — that he’ll work from his home if he can’t work from the regional offices. He fears the poverty, violence and destruction that befell the Donbas thanks to Russian intervention.

I hear now Ukrainian television is being cut off in Kherson. Russia wants to conquer not just cities, but minds. But it is impossible for those who know freedom to believe in the goodness of dictatorship.

Mayor Kolykhayev messages me one more time. “The flag of Ukraine still flies here.”

I just hope that, no matter what, Kherson will remain Ukrainian.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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