All Vladimir Nesterenko wanted to do when he grew up was to play basketball. The brown haired 12-year-old dribbled and shot hoops with his dad Oleh in the village where they lived in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. He idolized NBA legend Michael Jordan.
His mother Julia Nesterenko was happy to encourage the habit. “We even had a basketball hoop at home,” the 33-year-old told CNN as she described their first family home. It was their “nest,” she said, with a small garden and a vegetable patch.
When Russian forces captured the regional capital, also called Kherson, and its surrounding area soon after the invasion began, the family knew they could not stay, Julia said. Russian checkpoints, armed forces, and officers of the FSB intelligence agency were reportedly flooding the region at the same time as disappearances and detentions of local mayors, journalists, and civilians became rife, according to local officials and rights groups.
It was time “to get out of the occupied territories to safety… in order to survive,” Julia said. Russians had taken over their village, Verkhnii Rohachyk, and the Nesterenko family feared the consequences.
With nothing more than a backpack and their important documents, the family took what appeared to be the easiest route out to Ukrainian-held areas, she said. On April 7, the family of three and 11 other people boarded an evacuation boat, operated by a local resident, crossing the Dnipro River from the southern, Russian-occupied part of Kherson region to the Ukrainian controlled territory on the other side of the river. The Dnipro, one of Europe’s longest waterways, cuts through Ukraine and its Kherson region before flowing into the Black Sea.
The boat crossing, which began at the bank of the fishing village of Pervomaivka, should have been simple. It was the seventh evacuation trip via boat from the village to a Ukrainian-held area on the north bank of the Dnipro River since the war began, according to Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of Kryvyi Rih, in the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk.
Instead, it turned into a bloodbath, according to Julia, two other survivors, a friend of one victim and several regional officials. They described how Russian rockets and gunfire targeted the boat after it unintentionally drifted into the frontline.
Roman Shelest, head of the Kryvyi Rih Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office for Ukraine told CNN that the boat drifted into the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and was fired upon 70 meters from the shore.
One survivor, who declined to be named due to safety fears, explained that the boat got lost in a smoke screen, believed to have been created by the Russians. CNN has been unable independently to verify this claim.
“This firing was made using a multiple rocket launching system, possibly Grad, but we would (only) be able to tell the exact type of weapon only after (the) forensic (investigation) is completed,” Shelest added.
One of the survivors also said he believed they were hit by Russian Grad rockets.
When the boat’s navigator indicated that the group had drifted close to the Russian-held village of Osokorivka, the morning’s silence was soon punctured with the sound of exploding rockets, the survivors said.
Vladimir slumped bleeding into Julia’s arms. “My husband behind me also fell on me when he was shot in the head,” Julia told CNN, her voice soft and monotone, seemingly bereft of emotion after all she lost on that journey.
Four people were killed in the attack that day. Oleh was among three to die on the boat; Vladimir died shortly after at a hospital. Another victim was a lawyer who had travelled into Kherson region to rescue her son and deliver humanitarian aid, the lawyer’s friend, Tatyana Denisenko, told CNN.
Photos of the attack’s aftermath showed what looked like the remnants of a rocket on the shore, and bullet and shrapnel holes in the hull of the boat.
“Based on the shells and ammunitions we saw in the area and on the shoreline, we could see the direction of shooting – which demonstrates that (they) were coming from the southern direction, and that is the territory occupied at this time and under the control of the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” prosecutor Shelest, who is investigating the attack, told CNN.
CNN has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment. Since the outbreak of war, Russia has repeatedly denied it targets civilians – a claim disproven by attacks on civilians and civilian targets that have been verified by CNN and other news organizations.