“If we hadn’t evacuated, we would have been dead,” she told CNN. “It was like heavenly powers told me, it was time to take my children away.”
The decision to leave was a difficult one. She lived through nine months of Russian occupation in Kherson region; her house was searched twice and Russian soldiers roamed the streets rounding up men of fighting age. She stayed through the vengeful Russian shelling which followed the jubilation of liberation in November 2022. “It was scary, but tolerable,” she said.
But over the past month, the situation had become unbearable.
A Russian strike targeted the Beryslav hospital where she worked. Hospital staff were huddled in the basement and emerged covered in dust after the all-clear was issued, Pitaichuk recalled. Two people were injured in that attack.
“The hospital where I worked was destroyed, the kindergarten was destroyed, everything was in ruins. So I decided to leave with my children. And literally two days later our house was hit,” she said.
Russian forces have been striking the western bank of the Dnipro River – on which Kherson City and Beryslav sit – since Ukraine regained control of the area a year ago.
But the Russian assaults are now more punishing than ever, according to Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesman for the Kherson Region Military Administration. “Almost every hour, Su-34 and Su-35 planes are coming in to strike and directing these guided bombs at various settlements,” he told CNN, referring to retrofitted Soviet-era munitions with high explosive loads that are released by Russian warplanes outside the range of air defenses.
Over the past week, at least one person was killed in the liberated part of Kherson as a result of Russian attacks every day. “If a month and a half ago it was 300-350 shells, two to three bombs a day, and we thought it was a lot, now it is up to 750 shells a day. The number of bombs has increased many times over,” Tolokonnikov said.
The relentless strikes may be a Russian effort to hamper Ukrainian efforts to establish a presence across the Dnipro River, in the Russian-occupied eastern part of Kherson region.
The bulk of the Ukrainian military has been focused on front lines leading to the Sea of Azov in the Zaporizhzhia region, to the east of Kherson. But small cross-river raids by Ukraine have kept Russian troops busy, preventing them from being diverted for reinforcements elsewhere along the 1,300 km-long frontline.
If Ukraine manages to gain a strong foothold across the Dnipro, analysts say it could mean greater risk to targets in occupied Crimea and even more pressure on already strained Russian logistical routes.
Ihor Chornyi, a volunteer with the organization “Strong Because We Are Free,” has been helping civilians leave since the area was liberated.
“It’s not just mortar or tank shelling like we used to have, it’s (the guided) glide bombs that destroy everything when they hit,” Chornyi told CNN. “Children are dying, and there are mandatory evacuations because villages are simply being levelled to the ground,” he said.
The collapse of the Russian-controlled Nova Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro in June killed dozens, destroyed villages, and changed fighting conditions in the area. The floodwaters halted Ukrainian ambitions to cross the river for some time.
But as the water receded and levelled off, Ukraine renewed its efforts. In mid-October, a Ukrainian cross-river raid managed to temporarily infiltrate occupied villages on the eastern — or left — bank of the river.
“It seems that Russians on the left bank are very worried that our brave soldiers will soon cross the river to them and start liberating the left bank. In this way, they are simply warning and intimidating the population and the Armed Forces of Ukraine that they are ready and will destroy and kill people if we make attempts to liberate the left bank,” Tolokonnikov said.
Since mandatory evacuation orders were issued on October 23 for children in 23 settlements in Kherson region, around 300 children and their families have been taken to safety, while 497 children are still waiting for their chance to leave, according to local officials.
But with the recent wave of attacks, even moving people out of harm’s way has become riskier. “Evacuation missions are becoming more dangerous. We have had situations where we gathered people, started moving them and were shot at. But thank God, they didn’t hit us,” Chornyi said.
Pitaichuk’s family has now settled in the Kirovohrad region of central Ukraine. After two weeks of living without daily shelling in their new, temporary home, the children – whose ages range from 5 to 14 – are finally feeling at ease.
But still, “whenever they see Ukrainian fighters or helicopters in the sky, the children are frightened and ask if they will be bombed,” Pitaichuk said.