by Alexander Query
August 13, 2022
The Kyiv Independent
MYKOLAIV — Nights are short in the southern embattled city of Mykolaiv. Since Russia took control of neighboring Kherson in early March, Ukraine’s shipbuilding capital has been shelled nonstop. Counting the dead has become a daily routine for Mayor Oleksandr Sienkevych. The morning of July 29 was no exception. “About 30 minutes ago, we had another shelling at a residential district. It was a cluster bomb,” Sienkevych told the Kyiv Independent that day. “A lot of people were injured.” Casualties kept mounting that morning. Five people were killed by the Russian attack that day.
According to Sienkevych, over 120 civilians have been killed in the city as a result of Russian attacks since Feb. 24. Over 500 have been injured. When he isn’t counting the dead, the mayor’s first duty is to take care of the living. Nearly half of the city’s 480,000 residents decided to stay in Mykolaiv — a grueling challenge for Sienkevych, who constantly exhorts locals to leave for a safer place. “They say, ‘we don’t know what to do, we will be upset (if we leave),’” Sienkevych says. “I usually respond that it’s better to be upset and alive.”
Preparing for war
Sienkevych, a fit 40-year-old IT entrepreneur who turned into a wartime mayor, says that the city was ready for war before Feb. 24. Kherson was occupied by Russia on March 4, becoming the first and only regional capital seized by Moscow since Feb. 24. Many thought Mykolaiv was next. The shipbuilding city of Mykolaiv is a strategic location, and a buffer between Russian troops in occupied Kherson Oblast and Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port located on the Black Sea coast 100 kilometers southwest of Mykolaiv. But Mykolaiv has been a bastion of Ukraine’s resistance since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion. “While (Russia) moved their troops to Kherson, we had another couple of days to dig trenches, to improve our techniques, tanks, to prepare our defense and our fortifications,” Sienkevych said.
In early March, Russian troops were able to enter the city’s outskirts but were later pushed out by the army, the local Territorial Defense Force, and residents, who helped supply the resistance with everything – from underwear to drones. “We got support from people from the west of Ukraine and Odesa, that helped us defend, helped prepare our artillery positions, so we pushed them (Russians) back,” the mayor said.
The mayor stresses that it was important for everyone to work together and do their part, including the city’s leadership. As a result, the Russians were successfully pushed further away from the city, now being on the defensive around 30 kilometers east of Mykolaiv.
Keeping the city running
Sienkevych is in charge of keeping the city running despite Russian shelling. The most pressing issues are providing water for the residents who stayed and preparing for the heating season ahead of the winter. “Every day, we need to renovate electricity, gas, and transportation in places
that were ruined by overnight bombardments,” he said, mostly in the Korabelny district, one of the hottest spots of the city where five people were killed by cluster munitions on July 29 More than 400 damaged buildings need new windows for the upcoming winter in Mykolaiv, Sienkevych added.
The water in the city is yellow, salty, and far from drinkable. Every shower feels like a dip in the sea, an issue the mayor is also trying to solve before the winter, he said. “You can wash hands, wash your clothes, even wash fruits and vegetables and you can eat them after, but you can’t drink the water, and you can’t use it for cooking,” he said.
After the Russians destroyed the pipes bringing the Dnipro River’s water to Mykolaiv, the city had no running water for nearly two months, a problem the administration solved by bringing water from the Pivdennyi Buh River, flowing from up north. “But we can’t clean it to the level of drinking water yet,” he said.
Many decisions made by the local administration are kept from the public eye, Sienkevych says, due to the need for secrecy in times of war. “It’s much harder to be transparent on a budget,” he said. “We are hiding because we buy some stuff that we need to hide, and we can’t show it to Russians or spies.” He assured the administration’s financial decisions are aboveboard, a fact that will be revealed after the war, the mayor says. “The war will stop one day, and all the information will be public,” he said.
Sienkevych advocated for future reconstruction projects where international partners “like France or Denmark” would run the whole bureaucracy and procurement procedures by their own standards and then move companies to Ukraine to renovate schools and hire other Ukrainian companies. “But all the procedures will be run by a common register, so we won’t touch any money,” he said.
Dealing with traitors
Sienkevych is a Roman Catholic with Polish roots. But being a faithful, forgiving Christian stops at Russians and their collaborators. On Aug. 5-8, Mykolaiv was closed for an extended curfew in an attempt to catch those suspected of helping Russians attack the city. The operation was initiated by Mykolaiv Oblast Governor Vitaliy Kim, which he announced two weeks prior. On July 29, Sienkevych said he had doubts about announcing it beforehand, as it could help collaborators escape. He didn’t hold back speaking about Ukrainians assisting Russia. “If you want to get rid of cockroaches, you close the building, you put on the gas,” he said.
At least 400 people were detained when the city reopened after the operation, according to Dmytro Marchenko, major general of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Marchenko said that supporting evidence was found proving that each detainee passed valuable information to the Russian military. Sienkevych has no mercy towards the Russian soldiers either, as he continues to lead the defense of Mykolaiv. “They came to our country with guns and we have to kill them,” he said.
Alexander Query is a business reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is the former business editor at the Kyiv Post. He worked as a TV correspondent and an anchorman at UATV in Ukraine, and received a BA in modern literature from La Sorbonne, in Paris.