Inside liberated Kherson, a major hub taken over by Ukrainian forces
KHERSON, Ukraine – The Kherson road, strewn with tanks and burnt-out vehicles, at some point ceased to be functional due to a collapsed bridge, requiring a hastily constructed dirt road. The post-apocalyptic landscape around the recently liberated Ukrainian town is unsurprising, given that until about a week ago this otherwise unremarkable countryside area was one of the most fiercely contested lands on Earth. Almost every building on both sides of the road shows signs of battle damage. At least half of them are totally destroyed.
Occasionally, the desolate villages show signs of life – smoke from a chimney or plastic sheets replacing shattered windows blown out by months of bombardment.
In the unusually flat surrounding fields, scores of Russian 220mm rockets, fired in salvos of 16 from BM-27 Hurricane multiple rocket launchers, dug into the earth, pointing skyward like deadly scarecrows. Depending on the exact round fired, each rocket can disperse up to 312 anti-personnel landmines or 30 cluster bombs, leaving surrounding farmland saturated with unexploded ordnance that will likely take years, if not decades, to completely clear. It is a laborious and dangerous process that Ukrainian technicians had already begun.
In the center of Kherson, the celebrations continued for a few days after the official recapture of the city by the Ukrainian army from its Russian occupants. Kherson was the first and only provincial capital taken by the Russians after their February 24 invasion. It is the capital of one of the four regions ceremonially and illegally “annexed” by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Putin’s forces retreated across the Dnipro River to the right bank, blowing up the main bridge in a bid to “preserve the lives of [their] military”, as the Russian commander, General Sergey Surovikin, put it.
Ukrainians wrapped in the blue and yellow flag asked anyone dressed in camouflage – and many who weren’t – to sign their names to their flags, like football fans trying to get the whole team to sign a jersey replica. An antique Ukrainian car, with a large flag waving outside its window, circled the square, blasting German electronic dance music from its open windows.
The music did little to drown out the sounds of outgoing and incoming artillery at relatively close range, but it did little to dampen the carnival atmosphere in the square. Local residents, having lived with the sound and fury of modern warfare for the past nine months, seemed utterly oblivious to the relatively continuous mass of Russian shells landing and the sharper aftershocks of Ukrainian returning fire.
Resistance in Kherson began as early as the Russian occupation. Videos produced early in the war show townspeople staring at Russian tanks and armed soldiers, who often seemed more terrified of the population than the other way around. As The New York Times reported, teachers in Kherson refused an order to have their students sing the Russian national anthem at the start of class, chanting “Glory to Ukraine!” In place.
In front of the regional administration building, the Ukrainian government had installed a mobile phone mast, linked to a SpaceX Starlink satellite internet system, to provide a network reception bubble for a few blocks. The generators provided power to charge the devices, giving the remaining residents of Kherson the opportunity to contact friends and relatives in the outside world, the first opportunity many of them would have had for weeks or even months. .
The city’s electricity, water and heating systems are almost entirely out of order, destroyed by the Russians during their retreat. The Ukrainian government has attempted to restore all services in the city, approving a reconstruction program worth $2.7 million on Tuesday. “We must start reconstruction in the liberated territories of the Kherson region as soon as possible,” Ukraine’s Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko said in a statement. “First of all, restore damaged objects of critical infrastructure and provide people with electricity and heat.”
The 656ft Kherson TV Tower, the tallest structure in the region and a feature of the city’s skyline for the past two decades, was one of the latest victims of Russia’s scorched earth campaign and one of many examples of civilian infrastructure destroyed by retreating forces days before fleeing across the Dnipro.
A wide range of volunteers and aid organizations, mostly Ukrainian but also from around the world, had stepped up to help the relief effort. Yahoo News saw a Western aid organization donate a British ambulance and hand out a variety of medicine to waiting crowds. It was a random process, an American volunteer giving drugs to anyone who said they needed them.
Evidence that Kherson was until recently an unwitting part of what Putin considers his dominance is everywhere. Countless large billboards, advocating a “yes” vote in the Russian-led referendum in the region in September, display propaganda exposing the benefits of “joining” Russia. Many have now been defaced or destroyed, but many that were beyond the reach of locals remain intact.
Residents confirmed to Yahoo News that Russian soldiers broke into their homes and forced them into the plebiscite at gunpoint. “Thank God we have been released,” said an emotional resident, who was wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and declined to give her name, before mocking the results of the organized referendum. “Kherson is not a treacherous town. It doesn’t matter what they say.”
Echoing previously reported events, residents of Kherson told Yahoo News of infighting between the different ethnic groups and factions that made up the Russian forces. Regular members of the Buryat minority Russian army allegedly exchanged fire with Chechen auxiliaries. In another reported incident, first reported by Yahoo News in late August, contract soldiers and members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) managed to participate in a fatal shootout that left at least three dead.
Some Russian soldiers are said to still be hiding in the city.
On the outskirts of Kherson, Yahoo News witnessed the arrest of a man the Ukrainian military believed to be a Kremlin soldier wearing civilian clothes to avoid detection. He was taken away blindfolded and tied up by a Ukrainian soldier. For him, at least, the war was over.