“You can’t walk one minute in Kherson without someone coming to hug you, give you flowers, ask you to autograph their flag," says Oliksiy Guzenko, a Ukrainian special forces soldier with a beaming smile and sharp tinted sunglasses. He’s holding a bouquet of sunflowers, just one of the gifts that have been thrust on him and other Ukrainian soldiers since they entered the Black Sea city of Kherson in triumph earlier this month.
"The people here were waiting for the Ukrainian army for so long. They were occupied for eight months by Terror Russia. They killed, they raped. [The victory] took longer than we wanted. Like all Ukrainians I wanted it to take one hour. But it took eight months." Guzenko has been fighting since 2014, when the war in the Donbas broke out, and is now taking a well-earned moment to relax.
Almost overnight, a city that had been ruled with repression and fear by occupying Russian forces was overflowing with optimism. Ukrainian flags, the possession of which could be punished with beatings and imprisonment, were flying all over the city. One elderly woman wrapped in one told me: "I had to hide this flag I’m wearing in the ground underneath my dog’s little house in the garden”.
Across the city, locals greet each other with Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine) and crowds in the central square sing the Ukrainian national anthem. Any Russian propaganda posters carrying slogans such as “Kherson and Russia, together forever!" have been defaced or ripped down. “We heard rumours about Kherson being liberated so many times for weeks,” says Tatiana, a young woman who was celebrating with her husband and infant daughter on the town square. “It was always false. So when it actually happened, we couldn’t believe it. We were so happy.”
Such jubilant scenes made a perfect stage for the surprise entry of Volodymr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, at around 10am last Monday morning (November 14). He has watched his armed forces march from victory to victory. After liberating the regions of Kyiv in April and Kharkiv in September, they have now regained the one provincial capital Putin’s forces had captured during the war – a humiliating blow for the dictator in the Kremlin, who declared these territories formally part of Russia just weeks ago. “It is necessary to be here and talk about Kherson residents, to support people,” Zelensky told journalists outside Kherson’s city hall. “To make them feel that we are not only talking about it but we are really returning, really raising our flag.”
Last week’s visit was a gutsy one, even for a president defined largely by his physical courage. All of Kherson is still well within range of Russian artillery stationed on the other side of the Dnipro River and the country’s authorities are already preparing for a possible humanitarian disaster. This week, they have started urging civilians to evacuate from Kherson and neighbouring Mykolaiv regions to avoid the harsh winter months, fearing that the electricity infrastructure in the area is simply too badly damaged and that thousands in the south of the country could freeze to death. There is also the ever-present danger from the Russian army camped just over the river, which is barely a kilometre wide at its narrowest opposite the city. Russian shelling killed at least one person and injured four others on Monday alone.
The liberating army certainly realise the scale of the problems they still face. In some ways, Kherson city’s residents escaped the worst fate. Ukrainian forces gave up the city largely without a fight in March, and the Russians retreated before Ukrainian forces stormed the city, meaning it avoided the urban combat that devastated cities such as Mariupol or Severodonetsk. Igor Bodanko, a Kherson resident, tells me the Ukrainians had taken particular care to hit only Russian military targets and avoid civilian casualties. Walking around the city, you can see that it is almost untouched.
But outside the city limits, it is a different story entirely — so much so that the country has announced plans to evacuate civilans from certain areas amid fears that the damage to instructure is too extreme for them to survive winter there. On the road to Kherson you drive past dozens of mangled and burned buildings, and Russia has this week been accused of burning bodies of its fallen soldiers at a landfill site on the edge of the city - residents nearby report the terrifying stench of burning flesh. Meanwhile in the town of Posad Povrovsk, which was on the front line for around six months, almost every house is destroyed.
It is also in these towns that the locals have started to tell of the terror of Russian occupation. In Novopetrovsk, which was just behind Russian lines, one mother, Svitlana, recalls the time that Russian soldiers accosted her son and his friends. They had gone to another village to buy supplies. On the way back, Russians stopped them and robbed them of everything they had. At gunpoint they demanded that he lead us to the family house, which they then ransacked looking for money.
She pauses and with a grimace spits out the words the ringleader had said to her: “If you can’t pay us with money, you’ll pay us with your body.” She said she started to plead with them and then fainted but when she woke up the soldiers were gone and she was physically unharmed.
In Velyka Aleksandrivka, another former occupied town village, another mother, Olga Balan, tells me how Russian soldiers, or “monkeys with Kalashnikovs”, had forced her to give birth in her basement, preventing her from going to a hospital because her husband was a senior police officer. The towns and roads are also littered with mines and unexploded ammunition. Driving down one of them, a tank in front drives over a mine and is blown off the road. Its crew are shaken but survive.
Zelensky told reporters this week that they had uncovered “hundreds of war crimes” in recently liberated territory. Ukrainian investigators are now painstakingly collecting evidence and interviewing victims, in preparation for war crimes tribunals they expect to take place when the conflict is over. Despite the Ukrainian triumph, the citizens of Kherson are not out of danger. The city’s surroundings are still very much a war zone. You can constantly hear incoming and outgoing artillery as Ukrainian and Russian troops trade fire over the river.
There will also be serious internal problems to deal with. The Russians destroyed much of the region’s infrastructure before they fled, leaving most without water or power. You can see people huddled around generators trying to charge phones and collecting water from the riverbank. Many are desperate for a phone signal to contact loved ones outside the city for the first time in weeks.
The city must also consider what it will do about those who collaborated with the Russians. In a smallish city with a pre-war population of around 300,000, and perhaps a third of that now, people know who is who in the community. Collaborators were therefore neighbours, colleagues, family and friends. “It was my sister," one local tells me.
A small minority of these collaborators were genuine pro-Russians who had been waiting for the takeover. But, more often, people assisted the Russians or informed on their fellow Ukrainians under extreme threats and pressure. Some joined the occupation administration out of a conviction that they were needed to keep the city functioning. Ukraine insists that each individual case will be dealt with scrupulously, according to the law. But there is no clear framework for dealing fairly with such sensitive issues.
On the walkway on the riverbank, I meet a former member of a partisan unit that fought Russian troops during the occupation, who identified himself by his code name Anubis. He is taking his two daughters for a walk on what is a near-cloudless sunny day, and the water is a resplendent blue. It would have been a picturesque and peaceful spot were it not for the smoke rising from artillery strikes on Russian positions.
This city is now the front line, with some Russian positions little more than a kilometre away on the east side of the Dnipro. The Russians have frequently shelled major cities with scant regard for civilian casualties. The city of Mykoaiv, just two hours drive away, has been hit with rockets and artillery almost every day of the war.
As we are driving out of town, we stop to take photographs with the Kherson sign, which Zelensky had posed in front of a few hours before. All of a sudden, we hear a series of loud cracks as artillery shells start smashing into the field around us, smoke clouds rising from the impact sites. Our military escorts scream at us to get back into our vehicles and our drivers swiftly whisk us away.
Zelensky hailed the liberation of Kherson as the “‘beginning of the end”. But all Ukrainians know there is a lot of fighting and bloodshed to come before they can free the rest of their country.