The Kherson Oblast has been divided by the war into a temporarily occupied territory and a free territory. The enemy is shelling the right bank, where the oblast center is located, with multiple launch rocket systems, mortars, artillery, tanks and UAVs from the left bank. Some of the residents have left, but the rest remain at home, refusing to evacuate. After the Russian military blew up the Kakhovka HPP, people were also affected by flooding.
Since the beginning of the large-scale invasion, this is the third OMA head in the oblast. On February 7, 2023, Oleksandr Prokudin became the Head of the Kherson Oblast Military Administration.
Our interview did not start as planned — in Mr. Prokudin’s office — but in his official car, as some foreign ministers came on an unexpected visit to the oblast, and the OMA Head had to meet them. We continued the interview in Posad-Pokrovskyi — a village that became a test site, being one of the country’s six communities where comprehensive recovery is taking place under the Build Back Better principle, then we talked at the Kherson airport and on the streets of Kherson, which had survived the flooding and which are shelled by the enemy, and eventually — in his office.
We talk about the flooding, the reconstruction of the liberated right bank, how the authorities are preparing for the de-occupation of the left bank, the betrayals thatwere unexpected for the OMA Head, and what would make Prokudin accept reputational damage.
WHEN I SEE CHILDREN IN THE SHELLED AREAS, MY INITIAL IMPULSE IS TO GET THEM OUT OF THERE
- How many people currently live in the oblast’s de-occupied area?
- The oblast has a total of 49 territorial communities, with 17 of them currently de-occupied. Approximately 150 thousand people now live on the Dnieper’s free right bank. Based on the information that we have, the same number of people remain on the left bank. By the way, half a million people lived both on the left and right bank before the full-scale invasion. Although only 33% of the oblast’s territory has been de-occupied, the right bank is where the oblast center is located, hence the numbers.
- Is there any information on the number of children who are currently in the Kherson Oblast’s right-bank area?
- About 15 thousand, give or take. After all, the population keeps migrating. During the distance learning we saw who was where. It’s school holidays now, and everyone is obviously away.
- For many, it is unclear why Kherson has not been included in the list of settlements banned for entry to families with children, since the city is being shelled. Is there any explanation to the fact that no decision has been taken to forcibly evacuate children from the oblast center and suburban communities?
- I would like to clarify that the oblast’s Defense Council decided in April to ban the entry of families with children to about 40 settlements in the oblast. However, Kherson was not on this list. Given all the circumstances, this was the decision adopted collectively.
As for the forced evacuation of children, it takes place in the area of hostilities.
- Do you think children should be here?
- No. When I see them here, I want to grab them and get them out of here myself. Small children in shelled areas is a very deplorable situation.
- There are also teenagers who wander around unsupervised…
- Yes, although now we are trying to offer them something to do in safe places, we are opening clubs. This, however, involves only a few children. Besides, moving around Kherson is dangerous.
As for the evacuation, here’s an example. Three children have suffered from shelling recently, and I visited them at the hospital. The eldest girl is a teenager, she is shaking all over, she is crying. I tell the parents, please leave, we will find a place for you in the Khmelnitskyi Oblast or in Koblevo. No, we won’t leave is their response. I’ll show you a photo of their house, here (shows the destroyed building — I.S.). And they want to stay there with their children, they ask to cover the roof to protect them from rain.
- How many children were deported from the oblast by Russians? How many of them are orphans, deprived of parental care or kept in residential institutions, how many children were taken away with their parents’ consent for the so-called R&R? Are any efforts being made to bring the children back?
- Efforts are being made, indeed. As for the children from residential institutions, we manage to return some of them, such as those from the Oleshky boarding school who came back through Poland. As for those who were taken away on the so-called R&R, we do not know the exact number of such children. There are still instances when parents are afraid to report it. Parents may even live in the de-occupied territory, while their child could be taken to Crimea or Russia, but they would never report it. We’ve had such cases. Statistically speaking, about a thousand children were taken away. I’m not even talking about the left bank.
THERE ARE 10 DESERTED SETTLEMENTS ON THE RIGHT BANK
- How many settlements in the de-occupied area are still without electricity?
- Currently, 31 villages have no electricity at all, they had been cut off the power grid as of 11/11/2022 (villages with electricity would have occasional blackouts because of shelling — I.S.). And all these settlements are situated along the line of contact. Let me explain (I’m talking like an electrician now): we are currently providing electricity to the settlements not under a standard scheme used before the full-scale invasion. This is because those large power lines that ran along the Dnieper have all been destroyed, and whenever a truck loaded with a tower arrives there, it would get hit instantly. We would power the village, but the line is weak, and if too many people return home, it would not support them all, but will be sufficient for the current number of residents, at least temporarily.
- In other words, all that time, people have been living without electricity in 31 settlements?
- There aren’t many people there, but yes, they have. We deliver generators, firewood, pellets and water there. We offered evacuation, but we cannot enforce it, we persuaded them, psychologists worked with people. They just don’t want to leave.
- Experts predict that some small settlements in the Kherson Oblast will disappear. Do you have a clear idea of what it’s going to be on the right bank, or are we merely talking about survival right now, and you haven’t looked that far yet?
- I’ve mentioned 31 settlements, and this does not include deserted villages. In total, 41 settlements remain without power, but 10 of them are completely uninhabited, with 10 to 20 houses remaining.
Now regarding prospects and communities. Each territorial community develops a strategy, and we coordinate it. Let’s take education — for example, 7 schools had functioned in the territorial community. This number of schools was too much even for the population that had lived there before the full-scale invasion. Of these 7 schools, 5 were destroyed. We would determine how many schools are to be restored and which ones in particular, and will prepare design and estimate documentation. Even if experts from the Department of Education say that it would be inexpedient to restore them, I travel there to talk to them, school principals, and community representatives. We sit together and I say, let me hear your suggestions and arguments. Why should we keep a school? Everyone proves their point. But we must remember that just to build a school costs from 100 to 500 million hryvnias, a lot of money. We will optimize by busing children 5-10 kilometers to the main school or its branch, so that they could continue their studies after the war.
- Are you sure that there will be funds for these facilities, such as hospitals, schools, ASCs that you would list for reconstruction?
- Yes. We are not accumulating funds right now, because we will not be able to use them by the end of the year. But we already have a lot of projects now, with the construction process starting somewhere or the design being completed. This is taking place across all liberated communities.
- We are in Posad-Pokrovskyi now, where a national pilot restoration project is being implemented. Here, 96 percent of buildings were damaged during the hostilities.
- This is a model project showing how villages should be rebuilt. But this is a drop in the bucket. We have 228 de-occupied settlements, 50 of them similar to Posad-Pokrovskyi. We will not stop, we still have 26 settlements that we will rebuild with funds from the Shoulder to Shoulder project initiated by the President. Fifteen Ukrainian regions are helping us with this project. Heads of oblasts administrations come and tell us what they intend to do in each particular village, present their vision. These regions are working to restore villages and people’s homes with their own resources, materials, and specialists, which is very important because we do not have enough builders. These settlements will have unique traits of the region that helps restore them.
As for Posad-Pokrovskyi, a complex will be built there, including a new school with a kindergarten, a new ASC with a village council, a park, a farmer’s market, homes with greenhouses. Power in the village has now been fully restored. By the way, the village is located close to the Kherson-Mykolaiv highway, and we intend to have four lanes instead of two.
THE HOUSE SEEMS TO BE STANDING AFTER FLOODING, BUT KEEPS CRUMBLING EVERY DAY
- How realistic is it for residents of the oblast’s de-occupied areas to receive funds through e-Restoration?
- Residents of the oblast already receive money for destroyed housing via Diia.
- I’ve spoken to one of Kherson’s residents, and she said that Diia would not accept her request for restoration, although her apartment had been hit and one of the rooms is completely destroyed.
- She is not accepted because the city of Kherson is yet to be designated as an area for restoration. We can file papers, but we’ll have to wait until we enter the safe zone. Otherwise, we would allocate, let’s say, 200 thousand hryvnias for restoration, they would restore it and then get hit again, making us pay again. In the areas more than 40 kilometers from the line of contact, people are now being paid up to 200 thousand hryvnias. By the way, a different mechanism applies to those affected by flooding, there is no limit of 200 thousand hryvnias.
- And what should a person do if he or she needs to stay in Kherson because of work, and his or her apartment has been hit? Where to get the money to restore it, one has to live somewhere…
- What assistance are we talking about? We have an emergency and rescue service that can come over, take away garbage, board up windows.
- But the housing is still to be inspected by a commission to draw up the report, and this commission has not yet reached the victims…
- Yes, there are questions regarding commissions. Most of the housing is located in the areas that are still being shelled. Of course, people want the commission to come over to them in Antonivka, Sadove, or Ostriv. However, these commissions are made up of real people who are afraid to go to the shelled areas. We have found one such commission in Kherson who are not afraid to travel, but they lack time and can only examine one or two facilities a day, when in fact about a hundred is needed. There are not enough people. This is where other regions came to the rescue — their specialists arrive to draw up reports on flooded housing and on damages caused by shelling. From now on, more than a hundred people will work in the survey commissions, and the situation will change.
- How many houses destroyed by shelling are we talking about now?
- We know the number, we know how many applications have been processed. In total, about 14,700 civilian facilities were damaged in the Kherson Oblast. Most of them — 13,700 — are people’s homes.
- You’ve also mentioned about 400 houses completely destroyed by the flooding caused by the explosion at the Kakhovka HPP. But there will probably be more of them?
- Yes, these are the ones we have already seen destroyed. This figure should increase when the commissions that I’ve mentioned decide which house should be restored and which not. I saw a house after the flood — it seems to be standing, but keeps crumbling every day. 400 is the minimum that we clearly saw immediately after the water receded.
- Will those who want to build in another oblast be able to use this money?
- I guess no. But there will be a lot of people like that, I assume. For example, a person in the Velyka Oleksandrivka community was paid 200 thousand, and he is delaying the restoration, does not want to live there. I should note that this money may only be spent on building materials, for reconstruction work, rather than on food, for example.
- Kherson residents assume that the reconstruction money will only be used on specific contractors — a betrayal, they say.
- No, people will choose the contractor themselves.
- People tell stories of those who cannot clean up their homes after the flooding. What should they do?
- There is a KhOMA hotline that may be called. One should call and tell exactly what kind of help they need. Given the scale of the problem, we determine who will help: KhOKARS (Kherson Oblast Communal Emergency and Rescue Service — Ed.), volunteers with whom we have signed memorandums of cooperation, or rescuers. If the house must be checked for explosives, we send the military. This line is currently operational: 0 800 101 102.
In rural communities, fellow villagers help each other mostly and, of course, volunteers actively help.
In the villages, people had been waiting nearby for the flooding to subside, and after the water receded, they immediately returned to their homes to rescue what was left, while in Kherson the situation is different with many residents staying away from the city.
- In Kherson, too, most people were in no hurry to evacuate to other regions because of the flooding.
- We resettled and accommodated free of charge everyone who needed it and provided them with food. Currently, more than 400 of our residents evacuated from the flooded areas live in the dormitories. I visit them and talk with them.
- Will the victims from the left bank, which is still occupied, be able to receive compensation for damaged property?
- On the left bank, if people have the opportunity to record the damage or destruction, they should do so (photos, videos) and, if possible, report it to the police. All payments have been allocated for them, but the commission must draw up the report onsite, and this can only be done after the territory has been liberated. These payments, nevertheless, have been earmarked for the flooded areas both on the right and left bank.
- We have talked about reconstruction in the villages. Is there a new vision of Kherson — are there any changes to be expected?
- Yes. Things must be put in order. And, despite any potential reputational damage, we will do this together as a team.
- Is it the reputational damage when you get criticized for removing markets from the streets? (In Kherson, the Crystal marketplace that burned down as a result of an alleged arson in March 2022 was dismantled in May 2023. – I.S.).
- There are many illegal buildings in the city. The military administration is now quite capable of “mowing it down”, as they say, “in the name of the law”. We don’t know what will happen next, maybe the illegal construction will continue after us and it may turn out that it was a Sisyphean labor, but at least we tried and did it.
EXPERTS SHOULD DECIDE WHETHER THE KAKHOVKA HPP MUST BE RESTORED
- There are different opinions on whether the Kakhovka HPP should be restored. What is your opinion?
- At the moment, the Government intends to restore the Kakhovka HPP. This is being discussed at the presidential level. Preliminary estimates are being made, and construction according to U.S. standards is being planned.
I believe that we should do our best for the Kherson Oblast’s restoration and prosperity and preservation of its nature. I initiated the setting up of a state commission before the country’s leadership, which would comprise international experts and Ukrainian scientists to formulate their opinion. How everything would affect our environment and life in the region.
We understand that the flora and fauna, both above and below the HPP, have been severely affected. There will be swamps, midges, shallows — we are now catching live fish and releasing it into the Inhulets and other water bodies. We dispose of the dead fish. We need to strengthen the bank where people live. I don’t know what will happen to our overflow land — it may perish because of the salt water coming from the estuary. The flooded woodlands also need to be restored.
And so, piece by piece of our land, we have to study and analyze what is appropriate to do.
- What if environmentalists say: no, we don’t need an HPP?
- This is why this state commission should deliver its expert opinion…
As for the environment, I would also say that we need international institutions to help us, because we cannot pull it off on our own. There are problems with Dzharylhach, which was burned down by the Russians, and with Byriuchyi.
My current opinion is that we need to restore the Kakhovka HPP for the areas where a new ecosystem had already developed after its construction. Both the left and right bank are without any irrigation now. We are even thinking of installing pumps in the Dnieper riverbed, pumping water, filling canals, until the Kakhovka HPP remains in ruins.
Although, of course, it’s hard to talk about agriculture until we clear the territory from mines.
- What is the percentage of agricultural lands cleared from mines on the right bank?
- Only ten percent of the “easy” land has been cleared where no fighting took place. We’ve been stepping up the efforts with the help from donors, the military, and the State Emergency Service. The military are very helpful. We try to engage foreign organizations, but they are afraid to come because of the security situation. While they are willing to work in Mykolaiv and believe that it is a safe territory for them, they are afraid to do it here.
- Are there any estimates of how many EOD specialists we need to clear mines within a specific period?
- We would need an entire brigade — four battalions of military EOD specialists — to be distributed among the communities, and a certain pace to be maintained in order to calculate the timeframe. This means having two thousand personnel on a permanent basis. I believe that, after the war, our territorial defense brigade should be reorganized into engineer troops to conduct mine clearance operations.
- Residents of Kherson complain that there is no work, forcing them to take humanitarian aid. How are the authorities going to wean people off the “humanitarian needle”?
- I don’t know… It should be done gradually, like they do it in Mykolaiv.
- But people need to be offered jobs.
- Shops, markets, and businesses are already being opened for this purpose. This should be done when it is safe in Kherson. It’s tougher in the countryside, where people used to work in agricultural enterprises, and now that the fields are mined, people have no work at all.
You know, if we talk about agriculture, our oblast will definitely remain agricultural after the war. I talk to representatives from the USA, The Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium. We are working to make them invest in agriculture. And they are aware of the prospects. For example, the U.S. businessman Howard Buffett gives away ten combines and five tractors to farmers — it is charitable assistance so far, but I want this process to continue, and not only on a charitable basis.
I tell farmers: think about peaceful life, you need projects. Proposals are coming in — cautiously at first, but reaching new levels recently. However, the oblast should live not only on agriculture. Today, the industry also has a few ideas to make people come back and be employed.
This will include jobs, a social package, and fair conditions for all parties.
- Kherson Airport — should it be restored?
- Yes. It will be hard to restore it with funds from the state budget only, but we have a few ideas. Some airports in other countries are already trying to form a coalition to restore our airport, and it is already becoming a brand to some extent. However, Kherson Airport is better known as the airport in Chornobaivka.
- How should people be encouraged to return to the Kherson Oblast when the area is safe?
- There should be incentives for business. The Government hears us, and there is an understanding that as soon as the security situation is right… we have “Affordable Loans 5-7-9%”, we want to make “Affordable Loans 1-2-3%”, that is, almost zero loans for Kherson residents. And it’s OK with the banks. There are also mini-grants for business recovery, which will be refunded from personal income tax. The main thing is that it should be a safe area, and we cannot introduce such lending in Kherson right now.
- Are we waiting for the left bank to be liberated?
- Yes, this is all about a 40-kilometer safe zone, then they will be able to lend.
HEADS OF MILITARY ADMINISTRATIONS OF THE OCCUPIED COMMUNITIES HAVE A PLAN FOR HOW TO ACT AFTER LIBERATION
- How was your team formed? They say there are too many police officers in your entourage.
- I was joined by the people who had worked with me before. I see them as organizers rather than police officers, and I see their career potential. My deputy, Yaroslav Shanko, was the head of juvenile prevention, and used to be in charge of precinct inspectors. The chief of staff used to work as my chief of staff before, and she was not afraid to come to Kherson from Kyiv.
- You’ve mentioned more than 160 vacancies in the OMA. How many of them remain and what kind of specialists are needed?
- We have even more vacancies now, about 165. We need heads of structural units, lawyers, HR personnel, experts in finance and housing and utilities sector, mobilization work. So, if you have the desire to work and the relevant experience, please contact us.
- Dmytro Liakhno, the elected head of the Hornostaivka community and a former POW, asked for a job — did you hire him?
- I met with him, but, other than the Hornostaivka community, he doesn’t want to work anywhere else. His deputy is currently heading this community (military administration — I.S.). The community is under occupation. Of course, if there are any doubts about the current community head or he fails to cope, then it’s another matter. As for the community chairman, he is a professional elected by the people, but there is another one appointed by the President. I can say that when we liberate the community, I will put Liakhno to work.
By the way, military administrations of the currently occupied territories have an action plan for the time when they enter their settlements. We can see the layout of power lines (shows the map — I.S.), all the power is coming through Crimea now. We understand that Crimea may not be liberated immediately. Meanwhile, the Russians are destroying everything. The Melitopol line that came from the NPP is gone, and there is no line from the HPP. Everything is cut off, and it will take a long time to restore it. Now we are working on how to provide electricity to the settlements that we will liberate. It is the same with gas supply. We are preparing generators and transformers for each community.
The heads of the military administrations of the still-occupied communities are training, studying, they have been assigned to the de-occupied territories, helping to register damage and provide humanitarian aid. In this way, they’ve been practicing their steps after the liberation of their communities.
- Are the authorities preparing for a possible hazard from the explosion at the Crimean Titan?
- Yes. We’ve foreseen evacuation and other measures. We have relevant experience associated with this enterprise (in 2018, the territories of the Kalanchak and Chaplynka Districts in the Kherson Oblast were in the area affected by chemical emissions from the Crimean Titan plant — I.S.).
- How would you assess the authorities’ actions after the Russians blew up the Kakhovka HPP?
- The authorities did their job, there were no screw-ups, those citizens who decided that nothing terrible would happen and did not want to leave really screwed up. As early as 5:30 in the morning, the police asked people to leave, at 7 a.m. buses were there, we were driving under fire and suddenly we hear, “No, we’re staying, and that’s it.” Despite the fact that their houses were really flooded. We had to rescue them on boats then, despite going door to door before that, asking them to leave.
Experts did not expect the water to go so far down the Inhulets in the Kalynivka community, and they predicted that there would be 3-4 meters of water, but it turned out to be 6 meters. But if the wave had come, it would have flooded quickly, with more destruction and casualties.
- Accusations have been made that the authorities are not raising the issue of the release from Russian captivity of either Kherson Mayor Kolykhaiev or Hola Prystan Mayor Babych.
- I’ve inquired about all the residents of the Kherson Oblast who are currently held in Russian captivity. I’ve contacted to the Defense Intelligence, the President’s Office, and some other organizations. Our people are on the exchange lists, but there are probably some reasons why the Russians would not exchange them. As for Kolykhaiev, I also talked to his son. And no matter what anyone says, the release of Kolykhaiev is important to me. As well as of other prisoners — Horobtsova, Mykolaienko, Babych, and other Ukrainians.
- Claims are also sometimes made on social media that senior officials always stays overnight Mykolaiv where there is no constant shelling, that you are “too far removed from the people” in this sense.
- I spend the nights in Kherson only, in apartments, in houses, and, of course, I change my place of residence from time to time. I travel outside the oblast on business only.
- Who surprised you by becoming a traitor?
- Buliuk (collaborator, oblast councilor — I.S.). I thought he was smarter. Saldo, Lytvyn — I knew it could happen. Stremousov — of course. Buliuk meanwhile has two children and a lot of money. He should have thought about his sons and business. He will live in Russia, will never be able to travel to Europe, see the world, I think that he has ruined his children’s future.
Since 2000, Oleksandr Prokudin has served in the police force. He worked in the investigative and personnel departments. In November 2015, he was appointed the Deputy Head of the Main Directorate of the National Police in the Kherson Oblast. Between September 2019 and February 12, 2022, he served as the Head of the Main Directorate of the National Police in the Kherson Oblast.
Iryna Staroselets, Kherson
Photos by the author and provided by Kherson OMA