Ukraine war: Life and death in the shadow of a nuclear plant Russia uses as an army base

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The Ukrainian city in the shadow of a Russian-control nuclear plant

MARHANETS, Ukraine — A sturdy former soldier and farm boss, Mayor Hennadiy Borovyk doesn’t look like a man who walks away from fights.

But when your city is being shelled by an enemy hiding behind Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, you have to practise restraint.

The Russian troops are just across the Dnieper River from this southern Ukrainian city of 50,000.

They routinely fire their artillery guns at Marhanets, hitting homes, schools, hospitals, the arts academy, centre of culture, state university, even the bread factory.

And there isn’t much Ukraine can do about it, because President Vladimir Putin’s forces are hunkered around the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.

Firing back would be irresponsible, if not suicidal.

Mayor Hennadiy Borovyk at the Marhanets bread factory after it was shelled by Russian forces. Stewart Bell/Global News

So Borovyk, a 58-year-old Soviet Army veteran who became mayor in 2020, just has to take it, arms at his sides, while Marhanets gets punched, day after day.


“They violate all norms,” he said of the Russians. “They stay there, put weapons there, and they go into the field and shell.” And they know Ukraine won’t fire back.

“My soul is crying,” he said.

Frontline Cities Separated by a River

The cities of Marhanets and Enerhodar face each other across a narrowing of the Dnieper, which flows down from Kyiv and has become the southern frontline in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Russian military vehicles are hidden in the turbine hall of Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant. IAEA

Both are about the same size, but Marhanets is a manganese ore mining town still under Ukrainian control, while Enerhodar is a nuclear town occupied by Russia since last March.

A week into Putin’s invasion, Russian forces fought their way into Enerhodar’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant and turned it into a military camp, placing armoured vehicles in the turbine halls and hiding army trucks beneath an overpass connecting reactors.

Ukraine has repeatedly complained about Russian shelling at the plant. Russia, which has relied heavily on disinformation in its war, blames Ukraine.

The state-owned company that operates Ukraine’s nuclear plants said Monday that Russia had set up a machine gun post on the roof of the fifth reactor.

In a statement on Telegram, Energoatom added that 600 Russian army recruits had arrived at the site, and were waiting in a bomb shelter to be sent to Donetsk.

Russian forces “continue to erect fortifications and build military structures around the plant’s power units,” the company said.

“Such actions of the Russians are categorically unacceptable and violate all existing norms of nuclear and radiation safety.”

Marhanets, Ukraine. Global News

The International Atomic Energy Agency has warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences” if fighting around the facility continues.

All six reactors have been shut down, and IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi wants a protection zone around the site.

But “powerful explosions” have continued, some strong enough to rattle windows at the nuclear facility, the agency said in a Jan. 26 statement.

“The situation around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant remains volatile and unpredictable, as it is an active combat zone,” Grossi said on Feb. 10.

Lydia, whose home has been damaged by Russian shelling, in Marhanets, Ukraine on Jan. 23, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Like many in Marhanets, the mayor evacuated his family when Russia began shelling the city from Enerhodar. “We were afraid of radiation, so we moved them away from here,” Borovyk said.

Half the city’s residents have also left. Among those remaining was Lydia Holosharepova, 62. The Russians shelled her neighbourhood twice, a week apart, she said.

The first strike, on Jan. 11, took out a greenhouse, four farm buildings, eight cars and a power line. One of the rockets sprayed shrapnel through two of Holosharepova’s rooms. A wooden door now covers one of the windows.


“We don’t have even one window in our house. Seven windows, but they don’t have glass,” she explained as she gave Global News a tour of her home.

Inside a room, her bedridden brother lay with the television on. Wooden planks were stacked over his bed to protect him from the shelling.

Bedridden man in bed protected by wooden planks, Marhanets, Ukraine, Jan. 23, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

In addition to caring for her brother, Holosharepova distributes humanitarian aid throughout the district. “So I don’t have time to worry,” she said. “We are optimists.”

Asked how she felt about the Russians firing from around the nuclear plant, she was too polite for honesty, simply responding, “Can I say inappropriate words?”

Almost a year since Putin launched his invasion, her request is commonly heard in Ukraine: she wanted it to end soon.

“And then life will be normal.”

Man repairs damage to home in Marhanets, Ukraine, caused by Russian shelling from around Zaporizhzhya power plant, Jan. 23, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Next door, her neighbour Alim stood on a stool, an electric drill in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. A rocket had hit his house. He was trying to put his door frame back together.

He had just returned home on his bike on Jan. 20 when it happened. He fed the chickens and went inside. Five minutes later, he heard the explosion.

“It was at 12:40 because it was lunchtime,” he recalled.

There was dust everywhere. The doors blew off his house. The property was a mess. He said he needed to get the repairs finished before winter set in.

His children live in Russia and want him to get out of Ukraine, he said.

“They are telling me to leave everything and go,” he said. “Where will I go? I am 84, and my wife is the same age.”

The Bread Factory

Across town, the mayor climbed out of his car in an industrial compound. The windows of the brick building behind him had been replaced since an artillery blast shattered them two months ago.

Damage caused by Russian shelling of Marhanets bread factory, southern Ukraine, Jan. 24, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

He walked to a covered parking area and showed where shrapnel had pierced a metal post. A woman was badly injured, he said. Two others were also hurt. At a bread factory.

The rocket came from somewhere around the nuclear plant, he said. The shelling has been continuous. Three schools have been shelled, as well as 10 kindergartens and more than 600 residences.

Borovyk was born in Marhanets. After leaving the army in 1986, he founded and directed several companies, and served on the city council, starting in 1998.


He said a civic-improvement phase was underway when the Russians invaded: the roads, schools, hospital and swimming pool were being fixed up.

Market in Marhanets, Ukraine, Jan. 24, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Now it’s all the city can do to keep up with the damage caused by Russian shelling from around Enerhodar.

“They are staying there, and from there, they are targeting us,” the mayor said.

“People are afraid. A lot of people left the city,” he said. “A lot of people evacuated.”

Those left behind are too old or poor to leave.

“They are shelling here, but we can’t fire back,” said Anatolii Suprun, a 77-year-old former factory worker, shopping downtown as the air sirens wailed.

“It’s some kind of meanness.”

He said his grandson was a soldier in the eastern Donbas, which Russia seized illegally in 2014. He died in January 2022.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, his son joined the army as well. He is confident Ukraine will win but the sooner the better.

“It’s good that we have at least bread, water,” he said. “The garbage is still being collected.” But the shelling is unsettling. “I lie in bed wondering if I will wake up or not.”

The waterfront of Nikopol, Ukraine, damaged by shelling from Russian forces across the Dnieper River, Jan. 23, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Just west of Marhanets, in the city of Nikopol, the outline of the reactors was a visible reminder of the recklessness of the invasion.

Nikopol, too, has been bombarded by Russians, based near the nuclear plant.

Mayor Oleksandr Sayak said more than 2,000 buildings had been damaged. “Schools, kindergartens and other infrastructure,” he said in an interview at Nikopol’s city hall.

A 53-year-old woman was killed by artillery shelling on the morning of Feb. 12, and an 87-year-old was injured by shrapnel, local authorities reported. Four residences, a college and a water plant were damaged.

“All the people are worried,” Sayak said.

“They target Nikopol city. What kind of logic, I can’t tell you but it’s what we have.” He said the Ukrainian forces were holding their fire for fear of a nuclear disaster.

“Of course, no one will target a nuclear power station.”

The Canadian Veteran and the Hospital

The widows on the top floor of Manharets hospital are covered with particle board. They were shattered by an artillery rocket that landed in the grass outside.

When the Russians start firing, the hospital staff move the patients into the hallways. The elevator doesn’t go to the basement, so they have nowhere else to shelter.

Volodymyr Tananaiskyi, recovering from surgery at Marhanets hospital, Jan. 23, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

“It’s like a nightmare,” said Volodymyr Tananaiskyi, 72, an engineer at the local metal factory, as he recovered in a hospital room from a hernia operation.


Since he was admitted one-and-a-half days earlier, there had been “very strong shelling,” he said. He counted 42 explosions. He took cover in the corridor, he said.

He lifted his shirt to show the bandage covering the surgical scar on his abdomen. He said he was re-using the dressing because there was a shortage.

The city is unlike the countless others getting shelled across Ukraine because the Russians are waging war so close to a nuclear power station, he said.

“We remember Chornobyl and this could be 10 times worse.”

Canadian military veteran Rob McTavish, right, delivers a truckload of medical equipment to Marhanets hospital, Jan. 24, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Downstairs in the loading dock, the mayor was watching a truck full of medical equipment arriving. A portable X-ray machine and surgical bed were carried off the truck and into the hospital.

Orchestrating the delivery was Rob McTavish, a bearded Canadian military veteran from Coquitlam, B.C., who helped organize the $2.2-million shipment from Canada’s West Coast.

“It’s really high-end equipment,” he said.

“There’s a crash cart that’s coming that has all the items for a surgical room. Specific surgical equipment called bear huggers. We have a tourniquet system for surgeries, cauterizing machine,” McTavish said.

McTavish’s involvement with Ukraine began in March 2022, when he read a neighbour’s online post asking if anyone had room in their homes for a 15-year-old and his grandmother from Zaporizhzhya. He took them in and has since opened his house to two more Ukrainians.

Last summer, the same neighbour was looking for someone to accompany a load of equipment to Ukraine and learned McTavish was a former paratrooper in the Royal Westminster Regiment.

Staff at Marhanets hospital, shelled by Russian forces and supported by Canadian donations, Jan. 23, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Once he arrived in Ukraine, McTavish was taken aback by what he saw — the extensive damage to civilian buildings caused by months of Russian missile, tank and rocket attacks.

“It’s everywhere,” said McTavish, who served as a peacekeeper in Cyprus and left the Canadian Forces in 2006 after two decades. “I’ve seen war in multiple places, I’ve never seen this level of destruction.”

During a visit to Marhanets, McTavish was shocked to see the Russians had shelled the elementary school and the hospital, shattering its windows.

“It has no military significance whatsoever,” he said of the city. “I saw no military in the town. I saw no military targets. I saw no infrastructure for the military, yet it’s being shelled.”

After returning from that first visit, he used a shopping list supplied by the Marhanets hospital to begin collecting state-of-the-art medical equipment last fall, working with the charity Canadian Ukrainian Social Services in Vancouver.

On Jan. 24, the truck backed into the hospital delivery bay and the unloading began. “It’s incredibly emotional,” McTavish said as he watched. “I’m so glad that we could come through.”

The shelling held off long enough to unpack. An operating room table, surgeon’s chair, recovery room stretcher and adjustable bed, walkers, crutches, microscope, linens, blankets, commode, suction machine, and exam light.

The hospital staff hauled the equipment inside and up the elevators. The mayor said he was grateful. It wasn’t just the new equipment; it was knowing that strangers who lived far from Ukraine understood what the city was going through and were on their side.

Buildings in Marhanets, Ukraine, across the river from a nuclear plant occupied by Russian forces. Stewart Bell/Global News

Shelling is routine in frontline cities, but add a nuclear threat and things get more complicated. It takes nerve, and planning. To prepare for the worst, the city has conducted evacuation training, stocked up on iodine pills and monitors radiation levels.


It’s a lot, but Borovyk won’t leave.

“I am the mayor of the city,” he said. “I should be with the people who voted for me. I am not leaving them, and I am with them until victory.”