Reportage. This was an attack with cluster bombs: we saw this for ourselves, without needing any government press release to tell us. And they were dropped on a crowd of hungry people lined up in front of the Red Cross.

Russia dropped cluster bombs on a Red Cross food distribution

A woolen blanket, two black leather boots sticking out and a trickle of blood – that’s all that can be seen of Inna’s small, lifeless body. It’s Thursday morning in Kherson, next to the entrance to the Red Cross building. Russia’s heaviest bombardment against the city in at least a week struck one of the most vulnerable spots it could have, where people are forced to come to alleviate their dire needs.

They wake up at six o’clock in the morning to hurry in front of a closed iron gate, arguing with others over who got there first, standing for hours waiting, despite the cold, rain or snow – one can’t do that without hiding away the persona one shows every day and replacing it with a mask. We see that mask worn by every civilian when they notice they’re being watched as they’re queuing up for canned food or a hot meal.

This is what happens every day, in every city that is in the middle of a war, or at least in those where humanitarian aid still manages to arrive. Mothers bring their older children and make them queue up a few meters behind them to try to get a double ration; the elderly bring wheeled carts because they can’t make it otherwise; those who arrive too late try to incite the other stragglers to a revolt that lasts until the volunteer on duty runs out of patience and ends before a closed gate.

Inna was one of those volunteers. “We can’t do anything about it, we have 100 parcels a day and that’s all we can give, we need to schedule, do you understand what I’m saying?” she had tried to explain to those complaining in front of the Red Cross, just a few days before.

But concepts such as scheduling or organization mean nothing to those who are going hungry. “I’m hungry now, not in two days. Why can’t you give me a package, just one, it doesn’t cost you anything, I know you have them” – this is pretty much what everyone says, and you just can’t blame them. Inna tried to answer everyone and stayed well past the closing time for distribution, explaining the situation to people and taking down their names on a register.

It’s strange, but sometimes bureaucracy calms people down. Knowing you are on a list somehow makes you sure that something will have to happen: “My name is on there,” and so you accept today’s rejection in the name of a right you’ll have tomorrow. It’s a very serious matter. Dealing with thousands of people in a city that has become, along with Bakhmut in the Donbass, the focal point of Russian attacks is a gargantuan task.

In the midst of such a delicate situation, we had an appointment to meet with Yuri, the head of the Kherson Red Cross, at 10 a.m. on Thursday to follow the evacuation of an elderly couple to the train station, the one where the famous “freedom trains” arrive, which have gotten so much attention in the first days after the liberation of the western part of the city.

Nikoletta, the Ukrainian girl working with us as an interpreter, had come to talk to us as soon as we arrived, a few minutes before the agreed time. She went away and came back with the news that because of the large number of people who had shown up on that morning for food parcels, the evacuation would start 15 minutes late. The colleague who was with me at that point asked her if we couldn’t use that time to go to the supermarket, as Nikoletta had told him that she needed to buy some things, but “it wasn’t urgent.”

Despite her polite admonitions not to complicate the whole operation, we did go shopping with her. The supermarket in question is about a three-minute drive from the Red Cross building. Nikoletta went inside, saying she would be done in a minute; we waited outside.

Soon afterwards, the car windows began to shake, with distant booms and sounds similar to thunder crashing, again and again. Some explosions came so close that we heard the hiss in the wake of the projectile. We all ran inside the supermarket as two soldiers who happened to be there shouted: “Cluster bombs, run!”

Since the supermarket had no basement, as soon as the air became quiet again we decided to hurry back to the Red Cross building. In all, not even 10 minutes had passed since we had left. When we arrived, at exactly the same location where we had parked just before, we noticed a blanket on the ground on the sidewalk in the otherwise empty street. A woman in a heavy, crusty red jacket happened to look out and yelled something at us.

More explosions made us run out of the car with our heads down, and as we crossed the street, we saw that there was a body under that blanket. The red of the jacket made it immediately clear who it was. Inside the building, volunteers were rushing every which way to treat the wounded, almost all of whom had been struck in the head by shrapnel. Some were bandaging people and swabbing away the blood spilled.

One boy in a corner seemed paralyzed, and he kept bursting into violent sobs again and again the whole time we were there. Through it all, Inna’s body remained outside in the heavy rain that had started to fall. As trite as it sounds, the dead are dead.

This was an attack with cluster bombs: we saw this for ourselves, without needing any government press release to tell us. And they were dropped on a crowd of hungry people lined up in front of the Red Cross. Whether there was any possible military or strategic target nearby isn’t relevant, but, for the sake of completeness, we went back in the afternoon to check. There was nothing, unless it was underground.

Shortly afterwards, someone shouted, “Where’s the press?” Yuri came back and told us, “Let’s go.” We left to retrieve the two elderly people in a suburb of the city and take them to the train station to board a train carrying fleeing civilians to the west. Their names are Ivan and Tamara; she walks on crutches but is quite independent, while he is completely disabled and has a catheter.

The volunteers had to lift him off the ground and carry him on a canvas stretcher. Throughout the operation, they were attentive and caring, even smiling to avoid scaring those two elderly people even more, who were already terrified by all the commotion. After loading them onto the train, Yuri hugged me and wished me a happy birthday. They call it a “second birth” when you escape death just like that, by pure accident.

But Thursday was actually my birthday.

It’s war, not a backdrop for callous politicians. This is what’s happening in Kherson, in Bakhmut, and in Donetsk as well, on the other side of the front. And while in the West there is only talk of arms supplies by some and fallacious justifications for the invasion by others, in Kherson and elsewhere in the world people are dying just like this, for no reason.

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