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“We realized that we still had to fight”: life in Kherson, one year after liberation

KHERSON, Ukraine – Vyacheslav Havrylenko still remembers the euphoria he felt when the Russian army withdrew from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson a year ago, on November 11 .

Moscow quickly took control of Kherson after its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, and Havrylenko soon joined local resistance against Russian forces where he worked alongside Ukrainian intelligence as the city and much of the region remained under Russian occupation for eight months. .

Two days before Russian troops finally withdrew amid an eastward push by Kiev forces, he recalled encountering Ukrainian intelligence units on the outskirts of the city preparing to infiltrate Kherson .

“On November 9, it was eight o’clock in the evening and we met at this factory the first (units) entering Kherson,” Havrylenko said. says current time, a Russian-speaking network managed by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “Words cannot express this (feeling). When I saw them at the factory, we hugged and kissed.

A year later, Kherson remains free, but the scars left by war and occupation are everywhere. More than 70 percent of Kherson’s approximately 300,000 pre-war residents have fled, and Russian missiles and artillery continue to bombard the city from across the Dnieper River. Throughout the Kherson region, Russian attacks have killed more than 400 civilians, including 200 in the city, since the liberation a year ago. Hundreds more were injured, according to regional authorities.

In addition to regular blockades, residents are still grappling with the toll of the occupation, with accusations: and convictions — collaboration with Russian forces during this period became a feature of daily life.

A Kherson resident walks past sandbags protecting a post office, a year after the city was liberated by Ukrainian troops.

Kherson was the only regional administrative center of Ukraine that Russia was able to conquer after the start of its large-scale invasion. Russia’s withdrawal from the city and much of the region – as well as the panicked withdrawal from Kharkiv in the fall of 2022 – contributed to the loss of more than 40% of the territory conquered by Moscow during its invasion .

These advances have raised hopes among Ukraine and its Western allies that even more territory could soon be liberated.

But a year after the end of the occupation of Kherson, this initial elation faded in the face of the harsh realities of the battlefield.

Residents who spoke to Current Time said they believed their problems were behind them on November 11 last year, but war still remains close at hand.

The overall situation also gives less reason for optimism among residents than a year ago. Ukraine’s second counter-offensive has stalled and has so far failed to produce the breakthrough many had hoped for. Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, told The Economist in November that the war had become completely bogged down in the trenches as Ukrainian troops had advanced only 17 kilometers. through heavily fortified and mined Russian defensive lines.

“There probably won’t be a deep and beautiful breakthrough,” Zaluzhniy said during the interview with the British magazine.

Life under occupation

Despite the realities of a long war in Ukraine looming for many residents, the liberation of Kherson a year ago still remains cause for celebration.

Olha, who lived in Bilozerka, a town outside Kherson, says she still remembers the feeling she felt early on the morning of February 24, 2022 during the Russian invasion, when explosions could be heard and seen near the airport as she prepared to surrender. work.

Olha, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said that once it became clear what was happening, her first instinct was to get involved in her country’s defense. She first tried to find a military enlistment office, but then decided to use her nursing training to treat the wounded.

Kostyantyn Kozak, who commanded a group of partisans who carried out attacks on Russian forces during the occupation, claims that initially no regular units were available to defend the city as Russian columns advanced toward Kherson.

“The SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), the police, the National Guard, the battalion, the border guard detachment, everyone left Kherson,” Kozak said.

Instead, Kozak assembled a group of fighters who used every means possible to defend the city, such as erecting barriers and making homemade explosives, but they had few guns and ammunition.

“There were 120 machine guns in total, and there was no way to get more,” he said.

Havrylenko was eventually arrested by Russian intelligence agents and taken to a prison where he was held for a month along with other residents who resisted Russian forces in the town. He says that because he was older and a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War, he was not tortured, but that the screams of others were constant during his stay in the prison below ground.

“My age saved me,” Havrylenko said. “The (guards) called the first night someone was taken to the detention center ‘the night of hospitality’ and they tortured them all night.

For Mavic, a resistance fighter from Kherson who asked to be identified by his call sign, he recalls how residents continued to organize rallies in the city while it was occupied by Russian soldiers. Many residents, including himself, also secretly helped the Ukrainian military by sharing information about Russian troops and their activities.

He says that’s how he got his military nickname. One day, early in the Russian occupation, he followed a group of Russian soldiers as they headed toward Chornobayivka, a village outside Kherson where the city’s international airport is located. After alerting his Ukrainian military contacts, he received a Mavic drone model manufactured by the Chinese company DJI, equipped with a surveillance camera allowing the troops to be monitored. He continued to use it throughout the occupation.

Mavic says the months of occupation, which included kidnappings, detentions, torture and looting, took a toll on the local population, many of whom were traumatized. He vividly remembers how many of his neighbors initially did not believe that the region had been liberated until they finally saw Ukrainian soldiers with their own eyes.

“You didn’t understand what was happening, you didn’t believe it had really happened,” he recalls. “For four or five days, everyone was walking around in ecstasy.”

But that joy soon faded as the realities of war re-emerged.

“When the Russians started shelling Kherson from the left bank (…) we realized that we still had to fight,” Mavic said.

“They brought them borscht, they drank with them”

Since then, tensions in Kherson have escalated due to almost daily bombardments by Russian troops entrenched on the opposite bank of the river. Some families are divided, with some members living in different camps.

Fears persist over what life will be like as winter approaches, with a lack of electricity in many neighborhoods since the massive Kakhovka Dam upstream was destroyed in June, causing catastrophic flooding.

In addition to the physical and psychological consequences of the war, suspicion still hangs over the city and surrounding villages over those who collaborated or cooperated with Russian forces during the occupation.

When Russian forces seized Kherson, they held a referendum on whether the city and its region should join Russia, which Moscow said received resounding local support, although Kiev and countries Westerners rejected the vote as a sham.

Serhiy, who was wounded during the initial fighting, remembers returning to his native village of Nadezhdivka in the Kherson region and being alarmed to see some of his compatriots being friendly and welcoming to Russian soldiers. .

“They brought them borscht, they drank with them. Some brought them pies. said Serhiy, who asked that his last name be withheld.

Olena, who worked in the library of the Kherson Maritime Academy where local naval officers were trained, remembers divisions and conflicts within the organization as some staff members accepted the new Russian authorities of the city. The academy officially moved its headquarters to Odessa, which remained under Kyiv’s control, but new Russian-backed leadership was appointed and invited instructors to return. Olena refused to do so.

She is now back in Kherson, but says Russian troops took valuables from the academy and other buildings in the city when they left a year ago.

“They removed all the monuments from Kherson. They took everything,” Olena said. “They destroyed the entire local history museum, all the paintings.”

The SBU suspects that more than 500 residents of the Kherson region collaborated with Russian forces during the occupation, in capacities ranging from carrying out administrative tasks to providing commercial assistance for the war economy to provision of food or material support to soldiers.

Other residents have become police officers in new Russian-backed administrations in the cities.

“They walked around the village and illegally arrested their compatriots with whom they worked and lived all their lives,” said Viktoria Shakula, press secretary of the Main Directorate of the SBU for the Kherson region. “They made up deals… there were cases where they robbed people on the street and in their homes just to demand ransom. »

Nevertheless, there also appears to have been widespread resistance to the occupiers, as evidenced by frequent reports of bomb attacks against Russian troops and collaborators.

“A lot of people fought here as partisans,” says Havrylenko. “A lot.”

Written by Reid Standish based on reporting by Andriy Kuzakov for Current Time in Kherson, Ukraine

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