By Vitalii Hnidyi
STARYI SALTIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian volunteer Vitalii Kivirenko loads a small rowing boat with tins of food and supplies by the village of Staryi Saltiv, on the Pechenizhske Reservoir, northeast of Kharkiv, ready to make a short trip that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
After Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops back from the eastern banks of the reservoir, opposite Staryi Saltiv, in a counter offensive earlier this month, volunteers and relatives can finally reach those in isolated villages on the other side, and some of those who fled are returning home.
Rowing is the easiest option for crossing the water and delivering flour, sugar, oil and fuel for generators, after Staryi Saltiv’s road bridge was blasted in two by Ukrainian forces just days into Russia’s invasion, to try and halt the Russian troops’ advance.
The bridge once connected to the town of Vovchansk, just a few kilometres from the Russian border.
Reaching the other side by road would involve a huge detour around the reservoir created on the Siverskyi Donets River by a dam further south at Pechenihy and take almost six hours.
Kivirenko and other volunteers row past the hulking remains of the bridge, its railings painted in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, in the driving rain.
“The shelling here was so strong; you couldn’t even get close. The shelling was constant, about 80% of housing is destroyed,” Kivirenko said, referring to conditions in Staryi Saltiv.
Despite the destruction of the bridge, Russian forces still took Staryi Saltiv and occupied it until May, when it was retaken by Ukrainian forces. The area remained under constant artillery fire from Russians on the east bank until their retreat in September.
“We are happy to go home. At last, it happened,” said Serhii Negrovyi, returning by boat to his home on the east bank with his wife, son and baby daughter.
“My child was born in February. She was born February 11th. And then it [the Russian invasion] began. That’s how we lived, under shelling.”
His wife Olena, described the situation in her village.
“It was difficult. The neighbour’s house got shelled, then the house next to it. There were explosions in the neighbour’s yard,” she said.
“Thank God the children are fine. I am going home, thank God,” she said.
Russia struck the Pechenihy dam last week using short-range ballistic missiles or similar weapons, according to the British military.
Thousands have been killed and Ukrainian cities reduced to rubble since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 for what it called a “special military operation”. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
(Reporting by Vitalii Hnidyi and Andrii Pryimachenko; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Toby Chopra)