Lviv, Ukraine (CNN) — All Vladimir Nesterenko wanted to do when he grew up was to play basketball. The brown haired 12-year-old dribbled and shot hoops with his dad Oleh in the village where they lived in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. He idolized NBA legend Michael Jordan.
His mother Julia Nesterenko was happy to encourage the habit. “We even had a basketball hoop at home,” the 33-year-old told CNN as she described their first family home. It was their “nest,” she said, with a small garden and a vegetable patch.
When Russian forces captured the regional capital, also called Kherson, and its surrounding area soon after the invasion began, the family knew they could not stay, Julia said. Russian checkpoints, armed forces, and officers of the FSB intelligence agency were reportedly flooding the region at the same time as disappearances and detentions of local mayors, journalists, and civilians became rife, according to local officials and rights groups.
It was time “to get out of the occupied territories to safety… in order to survive,” Julia said. Russians had taken over their village, Verkhnii Rohachyk, and the Nesterenko family feared the consequences.
With nothing more than a backpack and their important documents, the family took what appeared to be the easiest route out to Ukrainian-held areas, she said. On April 7, the family of three and 11 other people boarded an evacuation boat, operated by a local resident, crossing the Dnipro River from the southern, Russian-occupied part of Kherson region to the Ukrainian controlled territory on the other side of the river. The Dnipro, one of Europe’s longest waterways, cuts through Ukraine and its Kherson region before flowing into the Black Sea.
The boat crossing, which began at the bank of the fishing village of Pervomaivka, should have been simple. It was the seventh evacuation trip via boat from the village to a Ukrainian-held area on the north bank of the Dnipro River since the war began, according to Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of Kryvyi Rih, in the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk.
Instead, it turned into a bloodbath, according to Julia, two other survivors, a friend of one victim and several regional officials. They described how Russian rockets and gunfire targeted the boat after it unintentionally drifted into the frontline.
Roman Shelest, head of the Kryvyi Rih Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office for Ukraine told CNN that the boat drifted into the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and was fired upon 70 meters from the shore.
One survivor, who declined to be named due to safety fears, explained that the boat got lost in a smoke screen, believed to have been created by the Russians. CNN has been unable independently to verify this claim.
“This firing was made using a multiple rocket launching system, possibly Grad, but we would (only) be able to tell the exact type of weapon only after (the) forensic (investigation) is completed,” Shelest added.
One of the survivors also said he believed they were hit by Russian Grad rockets.
When the boat’s navigator indicated that the group had drifted close to the Russian-held village of Osokorivka, the morning’s silence was soon punctured with the sound of exploding rockets, the survivors said.
Vladimir slumped bleeding into Julia’s arms. “My husband behind me also fell on me when he was shot in the head,” Julia told CNN, her voice soft and monotone, seemingly bereft of emotion after all she lost on that journey.
Four people were killed in the attack that day. Oleh was among three to die on the boat; Vladimir died shortly after at a hospital. Another victim was a lawyer who had travelled into Kherson region to rescue her son and deliver humanitarian aid, the lawyer’s friend, Tatyana Denisenko, told CNN.
Photos of the attack’s aftermath showed what looked like the remnants of a rocket on the shore, and bullet and shrapnel holes in the hull of the boat.
“Based on the shells and ammunitions we saw in the area and on the shoreline, we could see the direction of shooting – which demonstrates that (they) were coming from the southern direction, and that is the territory occupied at this time and under the control of the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” prosecutor Shelest, who is investigating the attack, told CNN.
CNN has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment. Since the outbreak of war, Russia has repeatedly denied it targets civilians – a claim disproven by attacks on civilians and civilian targets that have been verified by CNN and other news organizations.
Kherson in crisis
The Nesterenko family is just one of many in Ukraine whose lives have been uprooted or destroyed by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the country. More than 7.1 million people are internally displaced in the country, according to United Nations agencies, with nearly two thirds of Ukraine’s children having left their homes in the past six weeks. At least 191 children had been killed and more than 349 injured since the Russian invasion, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office on Wednesday.
Kherson was one of the first cities the Russians captured. Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev said people were “actively” leaving Kherson and other cities in the largely Russian occupied southern region after atrocities emerged from the Kyiv region, following the Kremlin’s hasty pull out from Ukraine’s north.
“Cities are becoming empty,” he said Tuesday, as Russia refocuses its offensive on Ukraine’s east. “It hurts me a lot when people leave Kherson. (By) leaving their homes, people will never return home anymore,” he said.
Rumors are growing that a referendum will be held in the Russian-controlled areas of Kherson, especially in areas on the left bank of the Dnipro River, in an attempt to legitimize the illegal Russian landgrab. A similar tactic played out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, where pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk held referendums on the formation of “people’s republics,” in voting that was dismissed by Ukraine and Western countries as a sham.
Ukrainians living in the left bank of the region have peacefully resisted the Russian occupation with rallies in Kherson and Kolykhayev, the mayor said Tuesday. A previous rally in Kherson saw Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accuse Russian forces of shooting at unarmed people. “Russian soldiers do not even know what it is like to be free,” Oleh Baturin, a reporter with the local Novyi Den newspaper, who recently left the region, told CNN.
On Kherson’s right bank of the Dnipro, Baturin describes a “tragic situation” that echoes the destruction wrought around the capital’s Kyiv region. People living in villages bordering the frontlines in Mykolayiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions have told him about being robbed, beaten and threatened by Russian forces, he said.
“For example, the Kochubeivka, the Novovorontsovka (where Osokorivka is located), and the Vysokopillia settlements – there are villages that died out in the first half of March and were totally looted and destroyed,” he said.
Only when the Russians leave will the full horror of occupation emerge, Baturin predicted.
Three survivors described the trauma of the boat attack last week in interviews with CNN.
“It was so sudden, everyone was in shock,” one of the survivors who spoke to CNN said. As the rockets hit the area, fragments began to strike the passengers, he said.
The survivor said he was spared from injury because he fell off the boat in the first moments of the bombardment. “I was wearing such heavy boots that I was immediately pulled to the bottom (of the river). Then we heard that (rockets were) pouring in,” he said.
They had drifted into an active frontline hugging the north coast around the village of Osokorivka. Ukrainian soldiers began to shout from the banks of the river, throwing their guns to the ground and wading into the water to retrieve the boat and the civilians, the survivor said. It took up to 15 minutes to get them out of the water around the Novovorontsovka area. CNN geolocated images of the aftermath to that shoreline.
“Our guys (Ukrainian military) helped, of course… rushing into the water, and swimming to the boat,” pulling the boat to the shore, the survivor said.
Julia said the shock of the moment, and the ensuing trauma, meant that her recollection of the event was blurred. “I don’t know why we were fired upon. We didn’t understand what the sounds were: Bullets, shelling, explosions?” she said. “And I did not understand what was happening – I was just in a fog.”
She remembers soldiers carrying her husband’s body and “putting him on the beach.” Her son Vladimir was still alive, but badly injured. “He was breathing, he had a serious head injury (and) lost a lot of blood. We took him 40 kilometers to the nearest hospital,” she said. “He was operated on. There was still hope they could save him. But as doctors later said, ‘it was an injury incompatible with life.’”
Maxim Kolomiyets, a burly 37-year-old handyman, took the boat so that he could get out of the region and join the Ukrainian army. He was knocked unconscious in the first moments of the shelling, waking up hours later in a hospital with a shrapnel wound to his left arm.
A day after the attack, on April 8, Lyudmila Denisova, the human rights commissioner of the Ukrainian parliament, described the shelling of the boat as a “war crime and a crime against humanity,” in a post on Facebook. Speaking to CNN, Vilkul, head of the military administration of Kryvyi Rih, reasoned that Russians were “doing everything in order not to let civilians out of occupied territories. Because, apparently, they are afraid that these people will be able to tell something about their positions.”
Julia is now living with relatives in a Ukrainian-held area, where she buried her son and husband. She is at a loss as to what she should do next.
“We wanted this trip (to be) a chance to escape from occupation… For us it was like a light at the end of the tunnel. Because it was already unbearable for us to be where we were,” she said.
“This war has ruined my family, my life – and the killing of people must stop. Immediately. Because it is (ruining) destinies, lives.”
CNN’s Tara John reported and wrote from Lviv. Oleksandr Fylyppov, Sandi Sidhu, Julia Presniakova reported from Lviv. Nathan Hodge, Julia Kesaieva and Olga Voitovych contributed to this piece.