In Liberated Ukrainian City of Kherson, Ecstasy Gives Way to Despair

In a city overflowing with fear and misery, there is one part of town especially dreaded: the river.

Each day Russian shells sail across the muddy gray water and blow up somewhere in the maze of apartment blocks and small homes beyond. The Dnipro River, which flows languidly around the city of Kherson, has become the front line. People duck behind trees and peek carefully around buildings, squinting across the water. This is where you can see Russian-occupied territory with your naked eye and where snipers lurk.

“Careful,” warned one woman standing by the river Monday afternoon. “The Russians are not far.”

On Sunday afternoon, an elderly woman was killed trying to escape from Russian-occupied territory. She was crossing the river in a small boat with her husband, the Ukrainian authorities said, when Russian troops opened fire on her with a machine gun. It was more grim news in a city that over the past three weeks has changed dramatically­ — for the worse.

This is the same place that throbbed with jubilation in mid-November after Ukrainian forces liberated it, pushing out Russian troops and handing Vladimir Putin’s army one of its most embarrassing defeats.

Now Kherson is deserted. It is cold. The people here say they are lonely. And the streets are glazed with ice.

The main square that hosted so much post-liberation celebration — picture people hugging, kissing, taking selfies with grizzled soldiers and joyously waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags — stands empty save for a few black dogs trotting through it. The streets feeding into it are also empty. A few people bundled in dark jackets trudge down them, lone figures under a gravestone gray sky.

The lights are off on the main street. The smell of soot from wood-burning fires wafts through the thin winter air. The electricity grid in Kherson, as in so many other Ukrainian cities, has been relentlessly pounded by Russian missiles, an attempt to bring this country to its knees, and people are burning logs to heat their homes.

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

“In other parts of the world, people are beginning to celebrate the holidays,” she said. “Here there is nothing to be glad about.”

She listed the woes: No electricity. No running water. No heat. She also has no customers. Soon, she said, she will have no job.

Her boss, the shop’s owner, plans to close down as soon as the remaining items — the handful of plastic lighters, the half-full box of Picnic candy bars, the little pyramid of evaporated milk tins and a few other things — are sold.

“Then what for me?” she asked.

As she was talking, a man wrapped in a huge parka popped in.

“Need some bread?” he asked. He worked at a shop across the street.

“No,” she said. “I don’t have anybody to sell it to.”

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

Many people left right after liberation. More have evacuated since. Russian shelling has intensified, with 170 attacks in the past two weeks. The Russians are blasting mortars, rockets, artillery, even tank fire against civilians.

“This is our great pain,” said Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of Kherson’s military administration. The Russians are gone, he said, but “they’re still taking lives.”

The Ukrainian military is trying to push them farther away to get Kherson out of artillery range. It was occupied by Russian troops for more than eight months but it won’t be truly liberated, officials say, until the territory around Kherson is liberated as well.

Near the main square, two 11-year-old boys played a game where they sprinted across a patch of ice and then slid as far as they could. Their eyes shone glassy in the cold. It dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday. It was the first day of snow.

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

He and his buddy Kyryl kill time by hanging around the square, waiting to shake soldiers’ hands and maybe get a Velcro military patch off them.

“We tried to talk to the Russians,” Liosha said, “but they didn’t really interact with us. But these soldiers” — he tipped his head toward a squad of Ukrainians filing past with their assault rifles — “they’re cool.”

Just about every day since liberation, another person here is killed. Russian troops often fire on the town at night, when people are sleeping. People here feel especially vulnerable because there are not many bomb shelters or cellars as there are in most Ukrainian cities, relics of the Cold War. The water table is too high to dig them.

“We have no place to hide,” said Olena Yermolenko, who lives by the river.

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

The other day, a shell slammed into a bank building so close to me, as I was waiting at a coffee shop across the street for a bowl of soup, that I could feel the shock wave blast into 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 whole block. The windows exploded, creating a blizzard of glass.

“You have to understand this is purely a residential area,” she said. “No military. No factories. Just apartments.”

Kherson used to be a major industrial hub, home to one of Ukraine’s biggest ports, which shipped steel and grain to the world. Now the main port building is covered in graffiti. Its windows are smashed. Snow blows inside.

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

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

He is 75.

On Monday, a team of three women who worked for the local government waited to help people who were trying to cross the river and come back to Kherson. Military officials announced over the weekend that they were allowing people to use the river to escape; they had closed off access to it after liberation to make sure Russians didn’t try to sneak back in.

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

But by Monday afternoon, officials said, none of the people in this grey zone had ventured onto the water. No one had actually tried to cross except the one couple who lived farther away, in a town still held by the Russians, and whose boat was shot.

“Nobody is coming,” said one of the women waiting for arrivals. “They are too afraid.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.

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