Ukraine claims to have hit a Russian warship with a missile strike. Russia says otherwise

Vladimir Nesterenko and his father Oleh, seen in happier times before the Russian invasion. (Courtesy of Julia Nesterenko)

All Vladimir Nesterenko wanted to do when he was growing up was play basketball. The 12-year-old brown-haired boy dribbled and shot hoops with his father Oleh in the village where they lived in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. 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 when describing their first family home. It was their “nest”, she says, with a small garden and a vegetable patch.

When Russian forces captured the regional capital, also called Kherson, and surrounding areas soon after the invasion began, the family knew they couldn’t stay, Julia said. Russian checkpoints, armed forces and FSB intelligence agency officers reportedly flooded the region just as disappearances and detentions of local mayors, journalists and civilians became commonplace, local officials say and advocacy groups.

It was time “to leave the occupied territories for safety…in order to survive,” Julia said. The 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 seemed like the easiest route to Ukrainian-held areas, she said. On April 7, the family of three and 11 others boarded an evacuation boat, operated by a local resident, crossing the Dnipro River from the Russian-occupied southern part of the Kherson region to to the territory under Ukrainian control on the other side of the river. . The Dnipro, one of the longest waterways in Europe, crosses Ukraine and its region of Kherson before flowing into the Black Sea.

The boat trip, which started at the edge of the fishing village of Pervomaivka, should have been straightforward. It was the seventh evacuation trip by boat from the village to a Ukrainian-held area on the northern bank of the Dnipro since the start of the war, 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 a victim and several regional officials. They described how Russian rockets and gunfire targeted the boat after it unintentionally drifted towards the front line.

Roman Shelest, head of the Eastern Kryvyi Rih District Prosecutor’s Office for Ukraine, told CNN the boat drifted onto the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces and was pulled 70 meters from shore.

A survivor, who declined to be named due to safety fears, said the boat got lost in a smokescreen, believed to have been created by the Russians. CNN has not been able to independently verify this claim.

“This shot was carried out using a multiple rocket launch system, possibly Grad, but we would (only) be able to say the exact type of weapon until after (the investigation) medical -legal over,” Shelest added.

One of the survivors also said he thought he had been hit by Russian Grad rockets.

When the boat’s navigator reported that the group had drifted near the Russian village of Osokorivka, the morning silence was soon disturbed by the sound of rockets exploding, survivors said.

Vladimir collapsed bleeding in Julia’s arms. “My husband behind me also fell on top of me when he was shot in the head,” Julia told CNN, her voice soft and monotonous, seemingly devoid of emotion after all she lost during that travel.

Four people were killed in the attack that day. Oleh was among the three to die on the boat; Vladimir died shortly afterwards in a hospital. Another victim was a lawyer who had traveled to the Kherson region to rescue her son and provide humanitarian aid, the lawyer’s friend Tatyana Denisenko told CNN.

Photos of the aftermath of the attack showed what looked like the remains of a rocket on the shore, as well as bullet and shrapnel marks in the hull of the boat.

The remains of what appears to have been a rocket, seen on the banks of the Dnipro River.
The remains of what appears to have been a rocket, seen on the banks of the Dnipro River. (Courtesy of Anton Gerashchenko)

“Based on the shells and ammunition that we saw in the area and on the shore, we could see the direction of the shots – which demonstrates that they were coming from the south, and that is the territory occupied at that time and under the control of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” Prosecutor Shelest, who is investigating the attack, told CNN.

CNN has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry for comment. Since the outbreak of war, Russia has repeatedly denied it was targeting civilians – a claim belied by attacks on civilians and civilian targets that have been verified by CNN and other news outlets.

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Christi C. Elwood