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Life under siege: Inside Ukraine's southern cities facing the Russian assault

From her apartment in the port city of Kherson, Irina Khabaluk is on the front lines of the fierce fight for Ukraine’s south.

Each morning since Russian forces invaded Ukraine a week ago, Irina Khabaluk has woken alongside her husband and their two young children feeling anxious about what fresh pain the day will bring. 

From her apartment in the port city of Kherson, Khabaluk is on the front lines of the fierce fight for Ukraine’s south.

Days of intense shelling have left locals like her terrified to leave their homes, feeling helpless while food supplies run low. 

“There is just shock and disbelief,” Khabaluk, a project manager, told NBC News on the phone from Kherson, a city of almost 300,000, where she has lived all her life. “We stopped saying ‘Good morning’ to each other when we open our eyes, because the morning is never good anymore.”

Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaev told NBC News on Thursday that Russian troops had captured the city, which sits on the strategically important Dnieper River.

That makes it the first major city to come under Russian control since the invasion began a week ago. Ukrainian officials had earlier disputed Russia's claims that its forces were in full control of the city.

Since the invasion started, Khabaluk and her family have stayed inside after reports of Russian soldiers firing at random. Russia has denied targeting civilians from the air or on the ground. 

But Kolykhaev warned civilians in a Facebook post Wednesday to walk alone or in groups of two, observe strict night curfew and follow all orders in order to avoid trouble.  

Local officials said they continued to administer their duties and the mayor said he gave the Russian forces conditions, including that the Ukrainian flag must fly over the city council building. He also requested a humanitarian corridor, no tanks in the city, and increased bread production.

After a second round of talks between the two countries Thursday, a member of Ukraine’s delegation said the parties had reached a tentative agreement to organize safe corridors for civilians to evacuate and for humanitarian supplies to be delivered.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said the two sides reached a preliminary understanding that cease-fires would be observed in areas where the safe corridors are established.

The aftermath of a shelling in the Tavricheskiy district of Kherson, Ukraine.
The aftermath of a shelling in the Tavricheskiy district of Kherson, Ukraine.Tatyana Khabaluk

Stuck in her apartment, Khabaluk said she had not herself seen Russian troops or military vehicles out on the streets, but she could see a Russian checkpoint about 550 yards from her house. 

She shared a graphic video with NBC News that she said was shot by one of her neighbors, apparently showing body parts next to her apartment building after a round of shelling — close to a playground where her children used to play. She also shared videos of a school nearby that was hit by shelling and a destroyed shopping center in her neighborhood.

NBC News has not verified the videos.

“To say it’s scary is to say nothing,” Khabaluk said. “It’s hard to even say these things out loud. It feels like some nightmare.” 

Sheltering in her apartment with her husband, their 11-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, Khabaluk said they sleep in the hallway which means they are protected by several walls, as the basement is not a suitable bomb shelter. She said they sleep fully clothed, with their shoes on, in case they need to escape in the middle of the night. 

“We stay in the apartment and basically pray that we won’t get hit by a shell,” she added. 

There is a shortage of food in the city, and most store shelves are empty, Khabaluk said. Grocery stores open for a few hours a day and even then the lines are long. She said the City Council told residents Thursday that the city’s bread factory was still operational, and bread will be distributed to residents for free by volunteer drivers. 

Yulia Verner, 35, said she also sleeps in the hallway of her Kherson apartment. She said she hoped the double walls would protect her and her 7-year-old son from rocket attacks.

Like Khabaluk, Verner, who is an information technology manager, is craving some normality. She said she is teaching her son, Andrii, math and English while they shelter. Originally from Kherson, she studied and worked in the capital, Kyiv, before moving back in 2019. 

She said she is staying in her apartment, too afraid to go outside. She only has enough food to last her and Andrii a week or two, but she said her friends have reassured her that they will help with whatever they can. 

Still, Verner, a European Union citizen of Estonian heritage, said she wanted to escape from the city as soon as civilians are given a humanitarian corridor to exit. 

“I am scared for my son, of course I want him to be safe,” she said via Facebook messenger. 

Verner said she plans to head westward, toward Lviv near the Polish border, and then on to Estonia.

Kherson resident Yulia Verner said she sleeps in the hallway of her Kherson apartment with her son, Andrii.
Kherson resident Yulia Verner said she sleeps in the hallway of her Kherson apartment with her son, Andrii.Yulia Verner

Further along the coast, Mariupol, a large city on the Azov Sea, remained in Ukrainian hands but was encircled and blockaded by Russian forces, according to the city council.

The council accused Russia of creating a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the city and hindering the supply of food. The city’s critical infrastructure had been destroyed by constant shelling and there was no heat, water or electricity, it said in a post on Telegram.

Women, children and the wounded were prevented from leaving the city, it said, adding that it was working to create a humanitarian corridor out of the besieged city.

“They hinder the supply of food, create a blockade for us, as in the former Leningrad,” the council said in a statement, referring to Nazi Germany’s yearslong siege of the then-Soviet city now known as St. Petersburg during World War II. “We are being destroyed as a nation.

Seizing control of Kherson and Mariupol would mean severely limiting Ukraine’s access to both the Black Sea and the Azov coasts. The two cities hold strategic value, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Kherson during military drills there before the invasion last month. 

Losing control over Kherson and Mariupol could deal a crippling blow to the country’s morale and economy. It could allow Russia to build a land corridor stretching from its border across Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and all the way west to Romania.

Back in Kherson, Khabaluk said she was terrified about what could happen should no new provisions be allowed to come into the city. Most people have food for three to four days, she added. 

Still, she said people were trying to keep their spirits up, helping each other out with whatever food or medications they have left.

“The world needs to see what’s happening here,” she added, breaking down in tears. “Scary things are happening.”