The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She fled Russian occupation by boat. Minutes later, she was shot.

The small motor boat carrying Tetiana Svitlova and her husband, Vladyslav Svitlov, was hit by gunfire as the couple crossed the Dnieper River on Sunday. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KHERSON, Ukraine — For weeks, Dmytro Matiukha had urged his in-laws to leave their cottage on the east bank of the Dnieper River.

The shelling was getting worse on the Russian-occupied island where they lived, and the couple had lost power in their home. So over the weekend, when Ukrainian officials encouraged residents to flee across the river to the liberated city of Kherson, Matiukha’s in-laws decided to make the trip.

Matiukha told them to be careful, he recalled, and waited in his car to pick them up on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river. But just minutes after they left on Sunday, Matiukha received a call from his father-in-law.

“Mom was hit,” said Vladyslav Svitlov, 76. “What do I do?”

Ukraine live briefing

At least four bullets pierced through the side of their small motorboat. Tetiana Svitlova, 75, was crouching low in the boat when the gunfire struck her in the abdomen. She reached her arm toward her husband briefly before collapsing into the boat.

The gunfire also damaged the boat’s weak engine, so it would take two more hours for a passerby to tow the couple to shore. By the time they reached their son-in-law, Svitlova no longer had a pulse.

Her death, a day after Ukrainian regional officials invited residents to cross the river to Kherson, underscored a dilemma facing officials about when and how to move the residents closest to the fighting as battle lines shift. At what point is it more dangerous to flee than to stay?

Nowhere feels safe along the Dnieper River. What was once a main draw of Kherson, a waterway that helped turn this regional capital into a major Ukrainian port city, the Dnieper River has now become a front line — and a source of constant peril for those living on either side of it.

Ukraine allows perilous Dnieper River crossings to flee Russian occupation

On Saturday, the head of Kherson’s regional military administration, Yaroslav Yanushevych, released a Telegram message encouraging residents on the occupied eastern bank to flee to Kherson, in a possible sign that Ukraine’s offensive could continue to push east. The evacuation was necessary, he wrote, due to potential for “intensifying hostilities” in the area. But Ukrainian officials offered no transportation or assistance for crossing the river. It would be up to residents to find their own boats and make their way across — at their own risk.

“Share the information with your family and friends who are currently at the dachas!” the message said. “We are waiting for everyone who has the opportunity and wants to return to the territory controlled by Ukraine!”

It’s unclear how many people decided to make the journey. On Sunday, few people arrived at the main ferry terminal where local officials said they would be allowed to enter.

But even after the news of Svitlova’s death spread quickly on local Telegram channels Sunday night, several residents of the east bank braved below-freezing temperatures, falling snow and the threat of shelling to cross the river into Kherson on Monday, the last day regional officials said they would be lifting the ban on the water. Many of those who crossed were elderly or retired residents of dachas — or cottages — in the picturesque islands and communities on the east bank of the Dnieper River.

Among them was another woman named Tetiana, who made the half-hour trip by boat with her husband, who, like at least a dozen others on Monday, docked at a Kherson marina far from the official entry point at the ferry terminal.

Tetiana, 64, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used out of fear for her safety, said she was afraid to cross the river, especially after hearing about the death of the woman the previous night. But with no electricity in her home, and no end in sight to the shelling, she said, “We just took the risk.”

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Even before Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson last month, Matiukha pleaded with his in-laws to leave their home on the east bank. For a while, their cottage was still comfortable — there was heat and electricity and the threat of shelling seemed farther away. But once they lost power, and once the regional administration began urging residents to leave the area, the couple agreed to move.

They hoped the river route would be relatively safe because they hadn’t seen or heard about any Russian firing positions near them along the waterfront.

Svitlov had just navigated down a narrow waterway and turned right onto the Dnieper River when the gunfire began, he later told his son-in-law. While it’s unclear who fired the shots, Matiukha believed it came from Russian forces. “The Russians clearly saw it was a civilian boat going low speed,” Matiukha said. It was a small boat that could only travel about 2 mph.

Just behind them was a boat with a bigger engine, capable of maneuvering and dodging bullets more easily.

With Svitlov’s engine damaged, he and his wounded wife were stuck on the river, in the line of fire. He eventually found someone to tow his boat to the closest place they could reach, an oil loading terminal.

Matiukha had called an ambulance and police to meet him there, to try to treat his wounded mother-in-law. But when the boat pulled up to shore, it was clear there was nothing they could do to revive her. Her husband, who was about a foot away from the bullets, suffered no injuries.

The bullet-ridden white boat remained parked there a day later, as Matiukha visited a morgue to begin the process of trying to retrieve his mother-in-law’s body.

He wondered about another boat, a family that had tried to cross the river before his in-laws made the journey. No one had been able to contact the family members in the day since, and Matiukha worried that they may have also been hit.

“They could be underwater,” he said.

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