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Ukraine’s greatest victory becomes another countless victim of Russia’s war

Residents of Kherson are used to the shelling but occupation they say is 'to be dead in a living body'
Residents of Kherson are used to the shelling but occupation they say is 'to be dead in a living body' - STRINGER/REUTERS

It was one of the greatest victories of the war.

Ukrainian troops marched through the streets of Kherson, waving their nation’s flag high above their heads in awe of what they had achieved.

Children wrapped in yellow and blue raced into their arms and women threw endless streams of flowers into the air.

At the time, many of those who had lived under Russia’s occupation described the day Ukraine liberated the city as the best moment of their lives.

But as the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion approaches, some fear their freedom may be short-lived as Russia’s forces are on the front foot again after making their first major gain since May.

Kherson experiences between 40-80 shells falling on the city every day official say
Kherson experiences between 40-80 shells falling on the city every day official say - Verity Bowman

One soldier who helped Ukraine liberate Kherson told The Telegraph he worries about the possibility of Russia seizing the city once more, undoing all of the work built on heavy sacrifices.

“There is always a chance. Russia has a large population and a very strong and large army. It is a difficult opponent, so everything depends solely on us,” he said.

“I hope someday I will be able to come to the anniversary and celebrate. Now I am continuing my journey in the war. Glory to Ukraine.”

The Telegraph reconnected with people who previously spoke out about living under Russia’s occupation and found a disconnect with their liberated city.

Many have fled to safer parts of Ukraine. Just 71,000 of the city’s pre-war population of 300,000 remain.

Yar Linscky, a 20-year-old student, visited Kherson over the summer but found that the city he remembered had long disappeared.

“I just smiled with nostalgia and cried with grief. What has become of my city?”

One student said the places of his childhood had been destroyed
One student said the places of his childhood had been destroyed - Verity Bowman

Mr Linscky recalled jumping into the air so much when he heard Kherson had been liberated that his phone flew from his hands and shattered but said that the happiness he felt was short lived.

“Now Kherson is being shelled, the places of my childhood and my warmth are being destroyed. To live under occupation and war is to be dead in a living body.”

Kherson was seized by Russia in the early days of the war, becoming the first urban centre to fall into Putin’s grasp.

A puppet government was installed, Russian TV broadcast daily and the use of Ukrainian currency was discouraged.

Under the occupation, even ordering a coffee in Ukrainian became a crime.

Then Ukraine rolled back Russia’s troops on Nov 11 2022, in one of the country’s biggest successes in the war.

Volodymyr Zelensky triumphantly walked the streets in the days that followed, hailing the win as the “beginning of the end of the war”. Many hoped that it would be followed by more swift victories.

But today Russian troops remain on the left bank of the Dnipro River with water the only barrier between them and Kherson.

Residents in Kherson have become accustomed to the sound of constant gunfire that silent feels disconcerting
Residents in Kherson have become accustomed to the sound of constant gunfire that silent feels disconcerting - VERITY BOWMAN

Ukraine was forced to retreat from the city of Avdiivka in Donetsk on Saturday, marking the first major loss in months, as Kyiv warns over dwindling weapons supplies.

Residents of Kherson have become so familiar with the crackle of gunfire, whistling of missiles and crashes of them hitting their homes that silence is disconcerting.

Di, who chose to keep her identity secret for safety fears, said: “I feel normal during shelling.”

She has spoken to the Telegraph monthly since Kherson was first invaded.

“On the contrary, I feel uneasy when it is quiet. My psyche has adapted to explosions and it’s just not used to being quiet. My body has adapted to these realities.”

Between 40-80 shells of different varieties are thought to land in Kherson city daily, according to officials.

Kit was one of the soldiers greeted with waving flags and flowers after fighting in the Kherson area.

He paid a heavy toll for Kherson’s freedom, losing an eye and witnessing the death of his commander, making victory “even sweeter”.

“The day of Kherson’s liberation is one of the happiest and most memorable events in my life,” he said.

Kit described civilians tearing down Russian propaganda billboards and burning them, repainting anything in Russian colours with blue and yellow.

“The commander allowed us to get out of the car and go to the people, where we were greeted as their sons, brothers and fathers,” he said. “People could not believe they were seeing us. The feeling was incredible.”

Kit’s fight continued before the celebrations were even over. He currently serves the army in an undisclosed location in eastern Ukraine.

To those who used to call Kherson home, it has become a true victim of Putin's war
To those who used to call Kherson home, it has become a true victim of Putin's war - Verity Bowman

Anton Tatochenko, 24, told The Telegraph that living in Kherson was now “like a permanent lottery game, where the max prize is life”.

“If you don’t accept the fact that tomorrow may not come, you just can’t get over it mentally.”

Mr Tatochenko said that the moment he saw Ukrainian military vehicles rolling through the streets left him in a state of “euphoria”.

“When the city was liberated, it was euphoria, I can’t put it any other way. It was a state of blind joy when you are just happy to see our military, you want to touch them, hug them, and say “thank you”. For me, this was the best day of my life.”

But he said this state of jubilation lasted just one week before the realities of the war sunk back in.

“Now, of course, everything feels different – people are simply tired.”

Although the city’s streets were packed full of crowds on Nov 11, today the city remains a ghost town.

‘My life has changed irreversibly’

Photographs show piles of rubble left behind and deserted streets. The centre of Kherson is too close to the ongoing fighting for locals to feel safe.

“The city centre feels like a desert,” Mr Tatochenko said. “Very rarely cars drive there, not many people visit and of course, there are missile attacks. I don’t think there is a single building left in the old centre of Kherson.”

Evhen Spichak, 36, believes the war will not leave the psyche of the people of Kherson because of the sheer devastation the occupation wrought.

He grieves daily over the loss of his brother, who had been his only remaining blood relative.

Mr Spichak did not discover that his brother had been killed by invading Russian troops until days after he had been buried in a mass grave.

“I believe that Kherson has truly become a victim of this war,” he said. “After this event, my life changed irreversibly. And if someone says that time heals – it’s just a cliche and an excuse. Do you think that I’ve let go, that I feel better? No, no, no.”