Ochakiv was ‘paradise’ before unwelcome visitors began raining down missiles from spit of land nearby
by Luke Harding
9 Apr 2023
The view from the Ukrainian town of Ochakiv appears idyllic. Beyond the beach, a narrow strip of land stretches out across the sea. The peninsula in Mykolaiv province is known as the Kinburn spit. In happier times holidaymakers would take a boat from Ochakiv and camp among the dunes. The nature reserve is home to swans, pelicans and migrating birds.
Last June it got a new and unwelcome visitor: Russia. Soldiers captured the rustic territory, with its summer houses and mini-lakes, and turned it into a military base. Ever since the Russian army has bombarded Ochakiv, which is five miles (8km) away. Truck mounted launchers release Grad missiles, sending them over the Black Sea. Afterwards the crews speed off and take cover amid the mazy sands.
On Friday, the Russians launched their biggest attack yet. At 5am they hit Ochakiv with 72 rockets. Another 50 fell in the district. The barrage lasted for over an hour. The town’s 7,000 residents woke in darkness to the sound of explosions. Two people were injured, one badly. Thermite projectiles fell from the sky and bathed the waterfront in a strange white light. “They are swine, savages. They are killing peaceful people,” Serhii Kaminiev, a 52-year-old coffee shop owner, said. Kaminiev’s cafe is in Ochakiv’s central market. One of the Grads landed on the roof of a business selling clothes, setting it on fire. The pavilion was a twisted ruin. Charred T-shirts lay in a heap. Homeless dogs wandered among alleys of broken glass.
Aram Alaberdov, a security guard, said it was impossible to predict when the Russians might strike. “It’s good morning, good afternoon and good night,” he said wryly. He added: “In my view Vladimir Putin should be strongly punished. He’s worse than Hitler. Ukraine is like a shield protecting the whole of Europe. If we crack he will keep going.”
Before Putin’s full-scale invasion, Ochakiv was a popular spa resort. In the past many of its tourists came from Russia. “It was paradise,” Alaberdov said, recalling. “We are surrounded by water. You could swim, pick mushrooms in the forest or go fishing.” The attacks meant locals lost their livelihoods and lived in state of stress, wondering when the next bomb would land, he said.
Friday’s raid damaged residential buildings, a gas pipeline, and the ATB supermarket. Windows in premises and homes were boarded up. Last summer a missile hit another part of the market. “This was a carpet shop. It burned down. Russian social media claimed they had destroyed an American Himars system,” Kaminyev said, pointing to blackened rolls of linoleum.
Ochakiv’s mayor, Serhiy Bychkov, said 18 people had been killed since February 2022, including a three-year-old child. The child had a heart condition and died from shock during a missile attack, Bychkov explained. The authorities helped people who wanted to evacuate. “I have not left. If they chose to stay they can stay. We ask them to be in safe places,” he said.
The municipality has built six blast-proof concrete booths in public areas. Schools are closed but 800 children remain in the town, and study online. There is a curfew. During the evening streets are eerily empty. Of the bombardment, the mayor said: “This can’t be resolved locally. The Russians are terrorists. We need to root them out. People understand and support Ukraine absolutely.”
The situation was only likely to get better once Ukraine’s armed forces had retaken the occupied south of the country. Bychkov would not be drawn on when this may happen, but said his country had chosen the path of Europe and democracy. The war gave Ukrainians an opportunity to rid themselves of “past mistakes” such as corruption, and to build a better society, he said.
Ochakiv has a rich and diverse history. Greeks, Genoans, Romanians and Ottomans built fortresses along the coast, near the mouth of the Dnipro River. In 1788 Catherine the Great’s general Alexander Suvorov captured the town after a bloody siege. Russian writers including Alexander Pushkin celebrated this victory over the Turks. Ochakiv became synonymous – in Moscow’s imagination, at least – with imperial valour.
Putin has described Ochakiv as a “place of Russian glory”. In a rambling address just before the invasion, he claimed the US and Nato were plotting to use the town as a staging post to sink Russia’s Black Sea fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Ukraine has its own naval centre in Ochakiv. The British government promised to revamp it – something that did not happen, the mayor said, because of the war.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Command, dismissed Putin’s claims last year as nonsense. “Where does he say there isn’t a Nato base? If it’s not a Nato base it’s a US bio-lab. There’s no alternative,” she said witheringly. The enemy was hitting Ochakiv in revenge for a Ukrainian operation last week against Russian positions at the far end of the Kinburn spit, Humeniuk said.
Ukrainian soldiers had “cleaned” the area with counter-battery fire. The Russians retreated, and hid in the village of Pokrovske, but then snuck back early on Friday. “It’s their crude reaction. They are punishing civilians because of the success of our military,” Humeniuk said. “We can’t use the same tactics against them because they spread themselves out among our people.”
About 600 civilians live on the peninsula. There are multiple reports of Russian looting. Nearby, along the Southern Bug River, is the city of Mykolaiv, a key port for Ukrainian grain exports. No ships are able to leave. The only route out goes past Ochakiv and along the Kinburn spit. The Russians want to control the passage so they can harm Mykolaiv’s economy, and sell their own grain supplies, Humeniuk suggested.
Ochakiv is closed to media. The Guardian was allowed in as a rare exception. Over at Soborna Street local council officials were inspecting the damage. Earlier that morning a shell had landed on an empty residential property, ripping off the roof. Another plonked itself down on a grassy children’s playground. There were craters in the road; the wall of a garage resembled a Swiss cheese.
Oleksander Promin showed off his ground-floor flat, now covered in dust. Shrapnel hit the ceiling, above decorations of tropical palm trees. Promin’s tenant, Yana, survived by hiding in the bathroom. Her laptop was destroyed. “Material things are unimportant. What’s important is life,” Promin said. Two shells had previously landed on his family property, blowing out windows, he said.
In a recent online poll, Ochakiv residents voted to remove the town’s statue to Suvorov, and put it in a museum. A final decision will be made by the culture ministry in Kyiv. The monument, next to a church and the bombed palace of culture, depicts the general grinning and gazing out to sea. An explosion in January ravaged the nearby area, after the Russians hit a warehouse containing second world war mines.
The war has been a disaster for Ochakiv’s unique marine ecology. Bychkov said dead dolphins washed up frequently on the town’s beach. A pine forest on the occupied Kinburn peninsula burned down last year, with the Ukrainian fire service unable to operate. Thousands of birds that breed in the lagoons were about to arrive. The Russians dug trenches and planted mines in the nature reserve. It will take years to remove them.
President Volydymyr Zelenskiy has signalled Ukraine will launch a counteroffensive in the near future, helped by new supplies of western weapons including tanks. Where the attack will happen, and when, are a closely guarded secret. Could Ukraine get back its lost land? “The writer Samuel Johnson said patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel,” Bychkov said. “We don’t agree. We have a plan.”
Luke Harding is a British journalist who is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. He was based in Russia for The Guardian from 2007 until, returning from a stay in the UK on 5 February 2011, he was refused re-entry to Russia and deported the same day. His 2011 book Mafia State discusses his experience in Russia and the political system under Vladimir Putin, which he describes as a mafia state. In 2020, Luke Harding published the book Shadow State, covering Russian covert operations, from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal by the GRU, to digital influence operations. In 2022, Luke Harding published the book Invasion.