One Ukrainian City in the Way of Putin’s New Total War

As they rush to evacuate children, the civilians of Zaporizhzhya face a double threat of nuclear devastation.

A Ukrainian woman surveys damage caused by a Russian missile in Zaporizhzhya.
A woman peers through a pall of smoke as she surveys the damage caused by a Russian missile strike on Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on Monday, October 10, 2022. (Nicole Tung / The New York Times / Redux)

Some sixth sense awoke 66-year-old Svitlana Vaselyuk on Tuesday at 5:45 a.m. She had just put on her slippers when, as she sat on her bed, a major missile struck her city, shaking her entire house. That was one of dozens of missiles Russia fired at Zaporizhzhya this week, destroying dozens of apartment buildings, historical streets, and important infrastructure.

The city, which lies on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, is in Ukrainian-held territory in the country’s southeast. The war’s front line is barely 20 miles away, and the nuclear-power plant that shares the city’s name is only a 70-mile drive around the Kakhovka Reservoir, in Russian-occupied territory.

“The inhuman monsters,” Vaselyuk exclaimed, when she told me about the attack later. The closest shelter was more than six miles from her house. She knew there were a couple of strategic targets, potential objectives for a Russian attack, in the region.

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear-power plant had recently lost its external electrical power supply and was relying on diesel generators to maintain safe operation and manageable temperatures in the reactor core. Could Putin order the plant itself blown up, or a strike against Zaporizhzhya with a nuclear weapon, as he has threatened to do more broadly against Ukraine? Vaselyuk was convinced that he might, after every other unimaginable thing that had happened—including the full-scale invasion, the mass graves, the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas.

“‘God, let it not be nuclear,’ I prayed,” she said. “Here, in Zaporizhzhya, we are the ground zero, but we are not ready for nuclear bombs. We have no place to hide from them, no proper shelters with stored water, food, or medicine.”

Vaselyuk has experience of a nuclear catastrophe. She had lived through the Chernobyl disaster. “Four days after the reactor blew up in Chernobyl, in 1986, Soviet authorities made us march at the May 1 parade,” she told me. “I went out with my little daughter instead of sitting at home with all windows and doors shut, and now both of us suffer from thyroid health issues.”

Still, she did not want to abandon Zaporizhzhya. Such fatalism is typical in Ukraine today. After the panic of the first few months, people are not ready to give up on the defense of their cities. Even Moscow’s threat to use a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine is not causing panic.

Assisted by humanitarian aid from all over the world, Ukraine’s civil society has organized itself, repaired infrastructure, and reinforced defenses. As bad as things got, with Putin’s attempt to avenge the bombing of the Kerch Bridge last weekend, Vaselyuk was determined to stay put.

An engineer by trade, Vaselyuk has been working to evacuate families with children, packing up food rations for displaced Ukrainians still fleeing from Mariupol, Melitopol, and other towns destroyed in the struggle for the southeast. Each package she prepared included food items specifically designed to enable people to survive for seven days sheltering from outside radiation in the event of a nuclear strike.

But at the back of her mind is always the fate of the nuclear-power plant. Zaporizhzhya faces double jeopardy: Russian use of a tactical nuclear weapon near the front line and possible sabotage and destruction at the power plant downriver. “Our city authorities are not preparing us for the nuclear meltdown,” she said. “People have zero information about how to survive it. All I know is that we have to be inside for at least three days and then cover exposed skin with wet cloths.”

Zaporizhzhya’s military chief, Oleg Buriak, was busy helping residents under constant attack. Rescue teams in the city were working constantly to free injured people from under the debris. The municipal services had to fix destroyed power lines, while trying to tackle a shortage of transport for evacuating the hundreds of victims. Because Zaporizhzhya Oblast straddles the front line, civilians are arriving constantly. Some 365 people managed to escape from the occupied zone on Monday, including 65 children.

“People were in basements; they are alive,” Buriak said on local TV this week. “We provide them with medical help.”

Russian forces have been pounding Zaporizhzhya with an array of armory: air-launched cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles from Su-35 jets, Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, and S-300 air-defense missiles that the Russian army is now using to attack land targets. Some analysts see a desperation creeping into Russia’s strategy, as the country throws whatever it has into the fight—including specialized military ordnance to attack civilian targets indiscriminately.

“Our brave army destroyed six S-300 systems,” Buriak said. “Russia has been producing them since the 1960s, so they have plenty of S-300 missiles in stock, but these systems are inaccurate.”

Pastor Albert Khomiak has been unable to sleep these past nights. He had been looking after 19 adopted and foster children—some old enough to be serving: Six are now soldiers defending Ukraine, and three more are preparing to join the military. Of his younger charges, he has evacuated seven children to Finland; most of them have disabilities, and needed care he could no longer be sure of providing in a war zone. Khomiak continues to take care of three children in Zaporizhzhya, because, as a local pastor, he felt he could not leave his parish.

“When bombing begins, the children are asleep and I am running around the house with my heart pounding,” he told me this week. “I am not sure if I should wake them up or if the bombardment is far away and they can sleep a bit longer.”

Every day, his parish has been distributing several tons of food aid delivered by an international Christian mission for displaced families. He was too exhausted to think about what a worse escalation might mean. “We have a very slow reaction to this disaster … Our community has finally received iodine tablets,” he explained. “So far, this is the only preparation for nuclear disaster. Nobody knows what to do if the Russians use nuclear missiles.”

Volunteers like Pastor Khomiak are the main source of assistance to the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons passing through Zaporizhzhya. But every day, the city-center shelter fills up with mothers and kids made homeless by Russian bombardment. “This morning I felt completely lost for the first time in seven months. The major transport company helping us refused to work under the missile attacks,” a volunteer worker named Natalia Aradlyanova told me on Monday, as she tried to cater to a couple of toddlers. “I have to move at least 36 children. They are very small and terribly stressed.”

Help came instead from a U.S. nonprofit, the Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation, which was working to evacuate children from areas now under Russian bombardment. “No child should ever have to live with a threat of bombing, genocide, and a literal nuclear meltdown,” a co-founder, Andrew Duncan, told me from the foundation’s base in Poland on Wednesday. “It is time for the West to do the honorable thing and protect the children of Ukraine.”