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Children from the Korabel neighbourhood watch a rescue operation in their community after a massive flood caused by destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, on June 7.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Valentina Andreyeva started screaming out her fury even before her feet were finally back on dry land.

“Putin should burn in hell!” the 65-year-old yelled as she and her husband were helped out of a rescue boat, along with a stray dog that was pulled from the waters that continued to rise throughout Wednesday in Kherson, the largest city downriver from the destroyed Nova Kakhovka dam.

It wasn’t just the flooding or even Tuesday’s destruction of the massive dam – which Ukraine and Russia both blame each other for – that Ms. Andreyeva was furious about. She and her city have been through so much over the 15 months since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine.

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Valentina Andreyeva, a retired factory worker, curses Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kherson for what she has endured during 15 months of war, on June 7.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

“We sat through the whole occupation. They treated us like animals for eight and a half months. Then they shelled us,” she said, referring to the period last year when Kherson was under Russian occupation, which was followed by half a year of punitive artillery attacks on the city by Russian forces after they withdrew. “Now they do this!”

Ms. Andreyeva kept shouting curses at Mr. Putin as the rescue workers turned their boat around to search for more trapped residents. “I’ve lived in my house for 41 years! Now everything is ruined. The water was up to here,” the retired factory worker continued, putting her hand to her armpit to illustrate.

One-by-one, small motorboats continued to arrive at the foot of a steep cobblestone street that leads up from a mini-lake that 36 hours earlier had been the city’s Korabelna Square. The boats carried people, such as Ms. Andreyeva, who had believed for too long that the waters would not keep rising.

Each craft dropped off one or two residents, almost all of them elderly, and often at least one soggy and scared dog. Most of the evacuees had stayed in their homes throughout occupation and the artillery barrages, and hoped that staying put would be the safest strategy again, even after Tuesday’s explosion unleashed a torrent of water that has drowned lower-lying parts of Kherson and the surrounding region. The Dnipro River rose more than five metres in some places in the first 36 hours after the dam burst.

“My husband was a port engineer, and he said the water would pass us by. So, he slept and I lay awake shivering,” said 50-year-old Olga Levina. When the water entered their home it came swiftly, forcing the couple to climb, half-dressed, on top of their bed with their dog, Gurd. When the waters swallowed their bed, they moved with Gurd to the top of their piano, before they finally called for a rescue as Ms. Levina’s husband, Alexey, perched atop a cabinet that she couldn’t clamber up.

“When I fell from the cabinet, the water almost pushed the piano on top of me,” Ms. Levina said, breathing heavily. She sat in the back of an ambulance, wrapped in a hypothermia blanket as Gurd lay at her feet. All three of them were alive, but “the water destroyed everything.”

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Olga Levina makes her first steps on dry land and cries in pain after being rescued from her flooded house in Kherson, Ukraine, on June 7.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Brown water continued to fill Korabelna Square throughout Wednesday. A line of dark red bricks on one of the buildings framing the square was a half-metre above the waterline at 10 a.m. when The Globe and Mail arrived in Kherson, but had disappeared from sight five hours later. A trunk of someone’s belongings floated through the submerged square as small boats and big-wheeled Sherp amphibious rescue vehicles continued to hunt for those trapped in their homes.

Ukraine has accused Russia of intentionally blowing up the Nova Kakhovka dam. Its collapse flooded the attached hydroelectric plant and started emptying the Kakhovka Reservoir – which was slightly larger in volume than Manitoba’s Lake Winnipegosis – into the Dnipro River. As the Dnipro surged, it swamped several small towns, as well as six low-lying districts of Kherson, the largest city in the region.

Intentionally destroying a dam would constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions because of the threat such an act would pose to civilians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 42,000 people could be driven from their homes by the flooding, which was expected to crest on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of others have been left without safe drinking water, and the loss of the reservoir is forecast to have a devastating impact on agricultural production in southern Ukraine.

“This is one of the most terrifying terrorist acts of this war,” said Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov, who visited Kherson along with journalists on Wednesday. He said that the destruction of the dam had released chemicals and infectious diseases into the water, and dislodged land mines that were now moving downstream with the current.

The situation was even worse on the Russian-occupied east bank of the Dnipro. Reports emerged Wednesday of residents forced to spend Tuesday night on the roofs of their homes, or in trees. “We see that the occupation authorities are not evacuating people,” Mr. Kubrakov said.

Russia says it was Ukraine that caused the Nova Kakhovka dam to collapse by striking it with a missile. However, most analysts believe the 30-metre-high structure was more likely destroyed by undersea explosives planted near the Russian-controlled bank of the Dnipro, which since Russia’s November withdrawal from Kherson has formed the front line in this part of southern Ukraine.

Though it’s the Russian-controlled side of the Dnipro that suffered the most damage, many analysts believe Russia’s military may have seen a strategic advantage in widening the river just as Ukraine is launching a long-anticipated counteroffensive.

“The balance of evidence, reasoning and rhetoric suggests that the Russians deliberately damaged the dam,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote on Wednesday, while adding it was unable to “offer a definitive assessment of responsibility.”

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A man is rescued with his dog in Korabel district of Kherson, Ukraine, on June 7.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Kherson residents say they don’t need any evidence to know who did this to their city. “I blame the Russians,” said 37-year-old Irina Derelioglu. She said the Antonovsky Bridge, which spanned the Dnipro River, was regularly hit by rockets but stood until Russian forces blew it up during their November retreat. Ms. Derelioglu was standing at the edge of rising water on Wednesday, telling a friend over the phone to meet her at a pair of refrigerators that had somehow washed up on Korabelna Square.

Mr. Kubrakov repeated the Ukrainian government’s contention that Russia blew the Nova Kakhovka dam in order to allow its military to move troops away from Kherson and redeploy them to other parts of the front line that are threatened by the Ukrainian counterattack. Russia said that the new campaign began on Monday and is already a failure, with the Ukrainian side suffering heavy losses. Ukraine’s general staff, however, has remained quiet about whether the offensive – which is expected to see them deploy newly trained troops, backed by Western-donated tanks – is under way.

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The sound of artillery boomed sporadically over Kherson on Wednesday. Most of it was outgoing fire, as Ukrainian troops in the city speculated that Russian forces were having to pull their guns back as a result of the flooding.

Despite the still-rising waters, and the sounds of war, the majority of the estimated 60,000 people who remain in Kherson – which had a prewar population of 280, 000 – say they’re not leaving. Government-arranged evacuation trains left the city mostly empty for a second-straight day on Wednesday, and volunteers at a humanitarian relief checkpoint along the highway west of the city stood idle, with few takers for their packages of donated food, water and medicine.

Ms. Andreyeva and Ms. Levina said they planned to stay elsewhere in Kherson, and then return when the waters receded from their homes.

“Everyone believes the water will go down in a few days and life will go on,” said Dementiy Beliy, a local researcher and political commentator. But most in the city, he said, did not yet realize that in addition to the destruction they could see, the farmlands that fed Kherson’s economy were ruined, and the national parks and country dachas that locals cherished had also been obliterated by the surge. “The aftermath will be catastrophic. People don’t understand the nightmare we’re facing.”

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Neighbors of Korabel district hug each other in Kherson, Ukraine, after being rescued from the massive flooding on June 7.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

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