KHERSON, Ukraine — On the day Polina Mulika was born, a Russian rocket hit the Kherson maternity hospital.
The explosion shattered the windows, spraying glass and debris into the rooms, but the panes directly above the newborn’s crib somehow held.
Everyone agreed it was a miracle.
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It also showed how dangerous Kherson has become since Ukrainian forces pushed out the Russian army on Nov. 11, 2022, ending eight months of occupation.
After invading, annexing and then losing the Ukrainian port city, Russian troops retreated across the Dnieper River and opened fire on Kherson with their heavy guns.
For more than two months, they have pounded Kherson with relentless artillery — a reminder that the Russian army destroys what it can’t possess and that nothing is off limits.
A shipyard city on the delta where Ukraine’s biggest river drains into the Black Sea, Kherson was the only regional capital captured by Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion.
Although Moscow formally made it part of Russia in September, the city was retaken by Ukraine’s military weeks later in a major embarrassment to Putin’s expansionism.
Russian vengeance has been harsh. More than 1,700 rockets have been fired at Kherson over the past two months, causing 74 deaths and injuring 207, the local administration said Tuesday.
Apartments, houses, schools, hospitals and government buildings have all been hit, as well as the downtown supermarket.
A portable bomb shelter has been placed on the sidewalk outside for customers. A rocket fragment props the door open so shoppers can run inside during attacks.
“There’s no logic to their shelling,” Julia, a restaurant worker who gave only her first name, said as she passed the shelter on her way into the grocery store.
Nobody knows where the next one will land, she said, but the constant bombardment was better than living under what she called Russian fascism.
The nearby central square, where residents hugged Ukrainian soldiers during liberation celebrations, was empty owing to the lack of cover it offered from incoming shells.
Three more died, and 10 were injured in bombardments on Sunday. The Kherson city council said homes, a car and an electrical facility were destroyed Monday.
Mobile units in Russian-occupied territory across the river are responsible for bloodshed, said Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, the Kherson Regional Military Administration spokesperson.
Up to 50 rockets are launched at the city each day, while as many as 100 hit the wider region, he said.
“The whole of Kherson is within range; you don’t have a safe place.”
Russian troops seized Kherson on March 2, 2022. Moscow installed a former KGB agent into office, along with a pro-Russia politician whose party won less than 12 per cent of votes in elections in 2020.
But Russian forces could not withstand a Ukrainian push to retake the city.
“You are free dear,” reads a billboard above the road into Kherson. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the victory the “beginning of the end” of the war.
The jubilation was short-lived.
A boarded-up city emptied by occupation and shelling
The shelling has proven too much for some. Only a fifth of its population of 300,000 remains. Some fled during the Russian occupation. But hundreds more left in January.
When a Russian rocket landed in front of Nina Patsukah’s apartment building on Jan. 15, she decided it was time to get out.
She is now living with her husband and kids in a hotel room in Odesa. Her twin sister crossed into Russia instead. They keep in touch by phone.
“I miss her. She is part of me,” said Patsukah.
Many of Kherson’s buildings are boarded up. It has become “a city without windows,” said Olha Khamentska, who runs a downtown flower stand. She called the attacks Russia’s “last breath.”
In a residential neighbourhood, a homeowner sat on his porch, calming his nerves with a hookah pipe while he waited for the emergency services department to remove the rocket lodged somewhere in his house.
It came through his roof at about 9:30 a.m., he said. Nobody was no hurt. “Lucky,” said the homeowner. Clay roof tiles and glass had turned his lawn into a junkyard. His dog sat by the front door, panting. His cat was still missing.
Another shell that struck around the same time pierced a nearby apartment block, punching a hole into the seventh floor. Two more hit the road and an empty lot.
Kherson’s children’s and maternity hospitals repeatedly targeted
Even the Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital has been hit — three times. The Russians have been shelling a place that treats kids for wounds caused by Russian shelling.
Half the hospital building is damaged, and 700 windows are broken, said the head doctor, Inna Holodnyak.
To protect the young patients, only the lower two floors are now used. The higher levels are more vulnerable. The staff avoid rooms facing the river that serves as a front line.
“All of us, we are scared,” Holodnyak said. But she said the staff were committed to staying. “There are not many people here, but they need our help.”
As she spoke, a blast outside made her duck behind her desk. One of her staff tossed her a helmet and flak vest, which she donned before carrying on with the interview.
She said she had no doubt the attacks on the hospital were deliberate. The Russians were targeting it, she said. They held the city for eight months, and they know the building is a children’s hospital.
Among those treated by hospital staff recently was a six-year-old who lost his hand in a mine explosion, she said. The device was likely among those planted by the Russians before they fled. Another mine cut a boy’s artery and left him with a severe leg wound.
A 14-year-old was hurt in two separate attacks — once when a shell landed on the street and again as he lay in bed and a blast broke the windows of his room, covering him in glass, she said.
The doctor added that parents are also putting off bringing their kids to the hospital for more mundane medical problems because they fear the shelling.
A boy lay on a hospital bed with a bandaged head. His mother delayed dealing with his ear complaints because she was too afraid to leave the house. By the time doctors looked at it, he needed immediate surgery.
“It’s very dangerous for kids to be here nowadays,” Holodnyak said.
Babies don’t have it any easier. The exterior wall of Kherson’s maternity hospital is blackened and boarded up after an artillery strike. The shell hit the facade at sidewalk level.
Two weeks later, Yevheniia Mulika sat at the kitchen table in her fifth-floor apartment while her newborn Polina slept in a crib in the bedroom, indifferent to the boom of shelling outside.
At Christmas, her son Sasha, 8, had asked Santa for an ant farm and a sister. On Jan. 11, he got one of them. But hours after she was born, for reasons nobody can explain, the Russians shelled the hospital.
Upon hearing the blast, Mulika rushed to find Polina. A doctor was already holding her. She was unharmed. Her room was the only one around it with undamaged windows.
“It was just a miracle,” Mulika said.
Mulika’s father has never seen Polina, she said. He doesn’t even know he has a granddaughter. On July 21, Russian soldiers came to his house and took him away without explanation. They then looted his bridge-building business.
On Oct. 7, a lawyer in Sevastopol, a city in Russian-occupied Crimea, called to inform her that her father, Constantine Reznik, was accused of terrorism and was being taken to Moscow.
The family has been unable to contact him. They believe the Russians took revenge on him because he would not work for them, and they needed his skills.
“We are thinking all of this happened because he refused to co-operate,” she said. “We are waiting, and we know he will return soon.”
Four days after Global News visited the maternity hospital where Polina was born, it was shelled again. Video of the aftermath shared by hospital staff showed extensive damage on two upper floors.
The pathology department, newborns unit and neonatal intensive care were all damaged.
Maternity hospital doctor wonders if world is watching
The shelling “is totally unpredictable,” said the head doctor, Oksana Tomchenko, after walking the halls of her hospital and checking on the handful of patients.
While the city has emptied, five babies were born in the past week, so Tomchenko can’t join the exodus to Odesa and Kyiv. She was at a medical conference in the United Arab Emirates when Putin launched his invasion. She made her way back to Kherson across Russian lines.
Everyone told her she was crazy, but she was born at the hospital and had worked there for three decades. So she had to be there.
“I really love my institution,” she said. “It’s my home.”
Tomchenko said she couldn’t fathom why the Russians are firing at a maternity hospital. Contacts living across the river in Russian-controlled territory have told her the soldiers boast of destroying the city.
She had no time for the Russians’ claims they had come to liberate Kherson.
“Yes, they liberated it: from water, electricity, heating. They liberated us from our properties. They took everything, even monuments.”
The hospital has enough staff and equipment, Tomchenko said. What is needed is a quick end to the war, which requires “maximum support” for the defence of Ukraine.
But she wonders if the world is listening.
“Sometimes we feel that they are not hearing us,” she said. “The Russians are doing whatever they want, and nobody will stop them.”