Putin Continues to Terrorize This Ukraine City, Long After His Troops Left
KHERSON, Ukraine — The city is free between the hours of eight a.m. and three p.m. The rest of the day belongs to the Russians: by late afternoon, the streets are empty, the few businesses left operating mostly closed. Traffic dies down to almost nothing. Before the war, 220,000 people lived in this city. By four p.m., the city is dead silent. Everyone is indoors, hoping to last one more night under fire.
Life in occupied Kherson takes place in that window by necessity: There are still people making a life here, and at some point, they have to brave the risks and leave their homes. So they make a schedule, despite the fact that the shells do not fall on any kind of predictable timetable.
The markets are stocked, the buses are running, street sweepers maintain the streets. When I entered the city for the first time, early on a chilly morning last week, a group of electrical workers was replacing a stoplight in the city’s main square, which a few months ago was filled with joyous crowds waving Ukrainian flags. Even in the morning, the square is almost deserted – too much open space, not enough cover. The shells fall at random – on houses, hospitals, busy streets. The day before I visited two aid workers told me a story of a man who was trying to evacuate two women from a village near the city that was under heavy shelling. As they drove into the city the road they were on was shelled and the woman in his passenger seat was killed. He was taken to Kherson City Hospital with shrapnel in his leg. The next day the hospital was shelled so badly it had to be evacuated.
In November, Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson, a major hub on the marshy river delta of the Dniper, which runs north to south through the middle of Ukraine. Kherson was Russia’s first and largest prize of the war, captured relatively intact on March 2, 2022, as Russian troops swept through the region before grinding to a halt on the outskirts of the city of Mykolaiv, about 50 kilometers to the north. Its residents suffered through more than eight months of occupation before Ukraine’s fall offensive recaptured the city and surrounding region, forcing Russian troops back to the east side of the Dniper. But about a week after the liberation, Russian forces began indiscriminately shelling the city, killing dozens with barrages of rockets and artillery shells and instilling near-constant fear among the tens of thousands still living in the line of fire.
As Ukrainian forces continue to roll back Russia’s invasion, it’s tempting to believe that some sense of normalcy has returned to previously-occupied areas. But in Kherson, the constant specter of Russian artillery fire – and the troops looming just across the river – means the city feels anything but free.
The electrical workers I meet aren’t too worried about the shells. When I walk up they’re discussing two notorious collaborators who worked with the Russians during the occupation, Saldo and Stremousov. Stremovsov was killed by a car bomb before he could flee the city; Saldo escaped to Russian territory. One of the workers tells an intensely graphic joke about the two involving Putin and oral sex. Everyone laughs. Still, one of them is wearing a bulletproof vest while he works. Body armor is not an uncommon sight in Kherson. The city’s street sweepers have all been issued plate carriers, as they work in open spaces outdoors. It is surreal to see a group of men and women in military garb and plate carriers armed with an arsenal of brooms and rakes.
Average civilians, however, have no such protection. They stand in lines at aid centers around the city to collect food, clothes and hygiene products, the latter of which are often scarce. Outside of a shopping mall electronics store that has been converted to a makeshift aid center by a travel company-turned-humanitarian-organization, I meet Nataliya, 42, who is waiting in line with her daughter Leah, who is seven and a half. Nataliya is twisting and popping a pink sheet of bubble wrap between her hands (Leah says it is hers). They’re waiting in line to get laundry detergent, which is hard to find these days. Nataliya tells me that a few days ago shelling killed someone in the entryway to their building and damaged her apartment. Her family then moved in with her aunt, who lives in an antiquated building with an outdoor toilet, which Leah needs to be escorted to; the shelling scares her too much to go alone. Before the war they both loved Kherson’s wide public parks, now they are too afraid of mines and shells to visit them. Nataliya tells us about Leah’s school – online, assignments mailed back and forth with a teacher in Poland, as the mobile internet is too slow for video chat – as the bubble wrap gets thinner and thinner. She folds it in on itself over and over again, trying to coax any last snaps out of the plastic. “Anti-stress,” she says.
These little indignities are everywhere in Kherson. At the city’s central market, I meet a woman named Tanya, who is from the westen Ukrainian city of Rivne. Tanya asks my fixer and I for money, and tells us that she’s effectively trapped in the city: During the occupation, Russian soldiers heard her speaking Ukrainian on the phone and stopped her, eventually taking her passport. Without a passport, she can’t cross the Ukrainian checkpoints outside of the city to get home.
Tanya’s story isn’t unique. The Russians who occupied Kherson inflicted violence in the same way that they now lob bombs at it: at random, with little reason or logic. At the market, we buy a bag of tangerines from Galina, a fruit seller, who also stayed through the Russian occupation.
“In the occupation the fear was different,” Galina says. “Anyone could be detained. Anyone could be interrogated.” She says that Russian soldiers came to her house and beat her, insisting that she “tell the truth.” They left when they realized they were at the wrong address. She calmed down when the Ukrainian troops came, but then a week later, the shelling started. It’s a sign that while the Kremlin’s forces may have retreated, its war machine hasn’t gone away.
As we’re talking, a volley of outgoing shells echoes through the city; four blasts from Ukrainian batteries in each of the cardinal directions around us, the city in the center. I edge a bit closer to the makeshift concrete shelter next to Galina’s stall, expecting a reprisal. No one else even flinches; they’ve given up predicting where or when a shell will land.
“It’s so frightening – you go to bed not knowing what’s happening. You never know whether you’ll wake up tomorrow. I’m only I’m only 62. I want to live a bit more!” Galina says.
In Kherson, almost everyone has a story of the occupation or its aftermath. At Kherson City Clinical Hospital, one of the few medical facilities operating during the occupation, Chief Doctor Leonid Remyga was first suspended from his job in June and then arrested in September, spending months in a Russian detention center. “This is what I want to forget,” he said when I asked him about his time in Russian custody. “But there are some things that are impossible to forget.”
When Ukrainian forces liberated the city in November, Remyga immediately returned to his post, but found that Russian troops had trashed his house and stolen his car. He now sleeps in his office at the hospital with a bulletproof vest on the couch beside him. Remyga explained that because of Kherson’s prominence and relative accessibility, the scarcity that plagues other areas of the front line is largely nonexistent – the city has steady supplies of food, medicine, and other aid. What it doesn’t have is security, leaving hospitals and city agencies understaffed. Kherson’s position on the west bank of the Dnipro makes it both easy to hold and uniquely vulnerable to Russian troops similarly ensconced on the opposite bank. The prevailing strategic wisdom right now is that Ukrainian troops will launch a major offensive to reclaim more territory in the spring, potentially targeting the southern front for further liberation. But until the Russians are pushed back form the Dnipro’s banks, Kherson will stay firmly within range.
What that means for civilian authorities is an ever-increasing caseload of potential war crimes, as investigators rush to document both abuses committed by Russians during the occupation and fresh incidences of shelling on civilians. In Mykolaiv, a city an hour to the north of Kherson, the regional war crimes prosecution unit commutes daily both to the city and surrounding villages, exhaustively documenting reports of sexual assault, torture, executions and deliberate attacks on civilian populations, often while shelling is ongoing. In the Kherson region, there are 10 investigators, responsible for investigating over 11,000 cases of potential war crimes. “We work 24/7,” Anastasiia Vesilovska, the unit’s press officer says.
The work is often traumatic and deeply personal: a few days before we meet, Vesilovska’s apartment building in Kherson was shelled and one of her neighbors was killed in the entryway of the building. Vesilovska, who was staying in Mykolaiv at the time, responded to investigate a potential war crime at her own home, working with the team to determine the trajectory, weaponry, and potential origin of the munitions that struck her apartment. Investigators use this data to try to determine specific Russian units responsible for the strikes, sending their evidence to the national Attorney General’s office in the hopes that it will eventually be used in trials conducted by the International Criminal Court.
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On my last evening in Kherson, my fixer, photographer and I drive slowly around the city as dusk falls. My photographer gets out to take pictures of an empty park filled with trees and a sprawling jungle gym area for children; just the kind of place Nataliya said she loved to go before the war. A group of street sweepers, all in armored vests, trudges into the park, sticking to a path on the edge. The Ukrainian artillery is at work somewhere on the city’s outskirts again; so far, the incoming fire has been light today. As we move on, the streets empty out entirely, and the quiet becomes almost overwhelming.
At a bus stop across from Kherson’s abandoned concert hall, a few hundred meters from the riverbank, a single man sits alone with his dog, a small, pert terrier looking around with pricked ears. He introduces himself as Valera, the dog as Vasya. They are the only living things in sight. The bus is nowhere to be seen. There are holes in the concrete wall behind the stop from past shelling. I bend down for a moment to pet Vasya, who stands up tall on his hind legs to grab onto my arm. “Two weeks ago a mortar landed down there,” Valera says, pointing to the west. He says it as if he is discussing the weather. For the free citizens of Kherson, he might as well be.