In the liberated Ukrainian city of Kherson, ecstasy gives way to despair

In a city filled with fear, there is one part of the city that is considered deadlier than any other: the river.

Every day, Russian shells sail over the muddy, gray water and explode somewhere in the maze of apartment blocks and tiny houses beyond. The Dnipro River, which flows languidly around the city of Kherson, has become the front line. People hide behind the trees and look carefully around the buildings, squinting across the water. This is where you can see Russian-occupied territory with the naked eye and where snipers lurk.

“Watch out,” warned a woman standing by the river Monday afternoon. The Russians are not far.

On Sunday afternoon, a old woman was killed trying to escape from Russian-occupied territory. She was crossing the river in a small boat with her husband, Ukrainian authorities said, when Russian troops opened fire on her with a machine gun. It was bleaker news in a city that in the last three weeks has changed drastically, for the worse.

This is the same place that pulsed with joy in mid-November after Ukrainian forces freed him.driving out Russian troops and handing Vladimir Putin’s army one of its most shameful defeats.

Now Kherson is deserted. It’s cold. People here say they are lonely. And the streets are glazed with ice.

The main square that played host to so much post-liberation celebration (imagine people hugging, kissing, taking selfies with gray-haired soldiers and happily waving blue and yellow Ukrainian flags) is empty except for a few black dogs trotting around. The streets leading to it are also empty. A few people in dark jackets trudge through them, lone figures under a tombstone-gray sky.

The lights are out on the main street. The sooty smell of log fires wafts through the winter air. The electricity grid in Kherson, as in so many other Ukrainian cities, has been relentlessly hit by Russian missilesan attempt to bring this country to its knees, and people are burning logs to heat their homes.

Almost all the stores are closed. One of the few that remained open on Monday advertised everything at 50 percent off. Inside, Natasha Sekeresh, the shopkeeper, leaned sadly against the counter.

“In other parts of the world, people are starting to celebrate the holidays,” he said. “Here there is nothing to rejoice about.”

She listed the problems: No electricity. No running water. Without hot. She doesn’t have any clients either. Soon, she said, she will have no job.

His boss, the store owner, plans to close as soon as the remaining items are sold: the handful of plastic lighters, the half-full box of Picnic goodies, the little pyramid of evaporated milk cans, and a few other things.

“So what for me?” she asked.

As she spoke, a man in an oversized parka appeared.

“Do you need some bread?” she asked. She worked at a store across the street.

“No,” she said. “I have no one to sell it to.”

“Me neither,” he said. “This city is empty.”

A lot of people left right after the liberation. Plus they have evacuated as. Russian shelling has intensified, with 170 attacks in the past two weeks. The Russians are firing mortars, rockets, artillery and even tanks at civilians.

“This is our great sorrow,” said Yaroslav Yanushevich, head of the Kherson military administration. The Russians are gone, he said, but “they are still taking lives.”

The Ukrainian army is trying to push them further to get Kherson out of artillery range. It was occupied by Russian troops for more than eight months but will not be truly liberated, officials say, until the territory around Kherson is also liberated.

Near the main plaza, two 11-year-old boys played a game in which they ran across a patch of ice and then slid as far as they could. His eyes glazed over from the cold. She went down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday. It was the first day of snow.

“I haven’t been in a classroom in three years,” said Liosha, 11, counting free time since the covid pandemic and then the war. “Actually, I want to be in school.”

He and his friend Kyryl kill time hanging around the square, hoping to shake hands with soldiers and maybe remove a Velcro military patch.

“We tried to talk to the Russians,” Liosha said, “but they didn’t really interact with us. But these soldiers”—he nodded toward a passing squad of Ukrainians with their assault rifles—“they’re great.

Almost every day since the liberation, another person dies here. Russian troops often fire on the city at night, when people are sleeping. People here feel especially vulnerable because there aren’t as many bomb shelters or basements as there are in most Ukrainian cities, relics of the Cold War. The water table is too high to dig them.

“We have nowhere to hide,” said Olena Yermolenko, who lives by the river.

If there were more people around, the death toll from the bombing would surely be higher. But in a city with a prewar population of around 300,000, perhaps a few thousand people are left in the center of the city.

The other day, a shell crashed into a bank building so close to me, while I was waiting in a diner across the street for a bowl of soup, that I could feel the shock wave in my ears. For several seconds afterward, I heard a strange ringing sound. Then silence.

On Seniavyna street on Sunday afternoon, a shell hit a 10-story apartment building. Tetiana Roshchyna was in her kitchen making meatball soup. The explosion shook the entire block. The windows exploded, creating a blizzard of glass.

“You have to understand that this is purely a residential area,” he said. “No military. No factories. Apartments only.”

Kherson used to be a major industrial center, home to one of Ukraine’s largest ports, which shipped steel and grain to the world. Now the main building of the port is covered in graffiti. Your windows are broken. The snow blows inside.

“I can’t even describe to you what it’s like to live through this,” he said. “It’s like a bad dream.”

Anatoliy Makarenko, a neighbor, said that when he looked at the damaged buildings, he wanted to “take an automatic weapon” and fight the Russians himself.

He is 75 years old.

On Monday, a team of three women working for the local government waited to help people trying to cross the river and return to Kherson. military officers Announced over the weekend they were allowing people to use the river to escape; they had closed off access after liberation to make sure the Russians didn’t try to break in again.

Officials said perhaps a few hundred people, mostly retirees, live on the marshy islands off Kherson in small summer houses. Ukrainians call it a “grey zone,” a space between warring armies.

But by Monday afternoon, authorities said, none of the people in this gray area had ventured into the water. No one had actually tried to cross, except for a couple who lived farther away, in a town still held by the Russians, whose boat was shot up.

“No one is coming,” said one of the women waiting for the arrivals. “They are too afraid.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshin contributed reporting.

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