Joy and Anxiety in Newly Liberated Kherson

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KHERSON, Ukraine — The flag rose slowly, gently swaying in the wind, in time with the Ukrainian national anthem playing from a loudspeaker. An honor guard of Ukrainian soldiers stood at attention in front of the pole. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood between the two, watching Ukraine’s gold and blue closely, his hand on his heart.

The flag-raising ceremony on November 14, accompanied by applause from the assembled crowd, marked the official liberation of Kherson from Russian forces and a new day for the city after more than nine months of brutal occupation.

After Russian forces left Kherson on November 11, the fear that had darkened the city for months evaporated into jubilation. The local population embraced the soldiers, giving them bouquets of yellow flowers. Children approached them asking for selfies and autographs on their notebooks and on Ukrainian flags.

The scars of the occupation remain, however.

Olga Federova, a 33-year-old English teacher at the Kherson Maritime Academy and mother of a four-year-old boy, explained that during the occupation there was an information vacuum that the Russians filled with radio broadcasts and newspapers filled with false information. 🇧🇷 That all changed during the third week of October, Federova said.

Soldier signing autographs, Kherson, Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier signing autographs during the ceremonial raising of the flag after the liberation of Kherson. Photo credit: Caleb Larson / WhoWhatWhy

That’s when the Russian propaganda radio completely stopped broadcasting and the city went into an information blackout predicting his release. “We understand that the Ukrainian army must be nearby,” explained Federova.

It was much closer than many people expected.

“Very suddenly” is how Vitaly, a 71-year-old former Kherson Maritime Academy instructor, described the city’s liberation. He was in a local supermarket looking for batteries for his flashlight when he heard a loud vibration outside.

Vitaly peered through the windows, where he saw a long column of vehicles with Ukrainian flags flying. He ran out of the store and out into the street to greet the soldiers with hugs and handshakes.

“I started crying, I jumped up and down – I felt young again,” said Vitaly, shaking with emotion at the memory. “There were tears in my eyes.”

crowd, ceremonial flag raising, Kherson, Ukraine

Crowds gather for the ceremonial raising of the flag after the liberation of Kherson, Ukraine. Photo credit: Caleb Larson / WhoWhatWhy

After Zelenksyy’s speech on November 14, telecommunications personnel turned on a mobile phone tower mounted on a trailer. People in the crowd didn’t need to be prodded to call their friends and relatives.

They jumped for joy, squealed in disbelief and shook, openly weeping as they came into contact with their loved ones, in some cases for the first time since early March when Russian forces took over the city.

civilian, ukrainian, soldier, flag, kherson, ukraine

Soldier signs a flag for a civilian in Kherson’s main square. Photo credit: Caleb Larson / WhoWhatWhy

While Kherson’s contact with the outside world is slowly improving, its most basic needs are not.

During WhoWhatWhyOn a recent visit to Kherson, residents threw buckets and plastic containers into the Dnipro River, which runs along the east bank of the city, collecting water for cooking and cleaning. Electricity is also still not restored and internet connectivity is intermittent.

As the water collectors worked undisturbed that day, they could easily be seen by the Russian forces who controlled the forested west bank of the Dnipro.

There are other concerns that are even more dangerous.

Ukrainian police and security forces are conducting so-called filtering – identifying residents who voluntarily worked with the Russian occupation or accepted Russian passports and pensions.

This is a pretty tough job, but the police occasionally get lucky breaks.

Two days after Zelenskyy’s address to the city, a group of police officers stopped and questioned a poorly dressed man in a nearby street. After a few brief questions, the officers searched the man’s belongings, uncovering the documentation that led to his arrest.

In the man’s pocket, officers found a brand-new Russian passport, evidence of collaboration with Russian forces. After pushing the man into a nearby police van, the officers photographed the passport and continued their patrol.

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Ukrainian security personnel checking documents after the liberation of Kherson, Ukraine. Photo credit: Caleb Larson / WhoWhatWhy

Kherson’s civilian infrastructure – its homes, apartment buildings and administrative offices – is mostly intact. The same cannot be said of the outskirts of the city, especially the side roads and agricultural fields. There, the Russians left behind many mines and booby traps, according to Maria Kopian, spokesperson for the mine clearance operation in Kherson. National Guard and National Police mine clearance teams suffered “at least 25 to 30 casualties” during accidental explosions around Kherson, and civilians were also injured, Kopian said.

Minefield, Kherson, Ukraine

Minefield warning sign. Photo credit: Caleb Larson / WhoWhatWhy

The release of Kherson is a significant victory for Ukraine at a particularly opportune time. It comes on the heels of a series of successes that Ukrainian forces have had since the beginning of the autumn, which include driving Russian troops out of virtually all of southern Mykolaiv Oblast and a Russian defeat in the north near Kharkiv.

Russian forces on the east side of the Dnipro River are apparently unable to secure a strong position, in part because large areas of southeastern Ukraine are within range of accurate long-range weaponry supplied to Kyiv by western countries.

However, Russian forces continue to attack cities across Ukraine with barrages of missile strikes. Following yesterday’s decision by the European Parliament to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, waves of Russian ballistic missiles rained down on cities across Ukraine, aiming not at targets of military value, but aimed at destroying critical civilian infrastructure, including gas centres. and electricity.

Though now secure, Kherson is still not entirely secure – the city is still in Russian artillery range. The scream of nearby artillery can be heard several times during WhoWhatWhytrip to the outskirts of the city. Although the Russian shells landed harmlessly in a nearby field, they hit the ground just 300 meters (~985 feet) from this reporter.

Chef, José Andrés, Kherson, Ukraine

Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen in Kherson, Ukraine. Photo credit: Caleb Larson / WhoWhatWhy

Chef José Andrés is the founder of World Central Kitchen, an NGO that provides meals and food aid to areas hit by humanitarian crises. While it’s difficult to gauge how much food arrived in Kherson during the Russian occupation, at some point Russia “stopped delivering food, leaving supermarkets nearly empty,” Andrés said.

During the occupation, Olga Federova and her family tried to buy food at open-air markets from local vendors whenever possible, both as an act of protest against the Russians and because locally sourced food was of better quality. “Even my cat wouldn’t eat Russian food,” said Federova.

Kherson is a fertile agricultural region, but there was no harvest this year as the Russian invasion turned farmers’ fields into frontline battlegrounds.

“This winter will be difficult,” said Andrés.


Joy and Anxiety in Newly Liberated Kherson

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