‘I hide behind the shed and howl silently’

The life of local residents on both sides – the occupied and the liberated – of the Dnipro, as told by them

‘I hide behind the shed and howl silently’
The Dnipro bank from the side of Kherson. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

‘There are only three houses left on the entire street’

Natasha, 44, unemployed
Hola Prystan (occupied by the Russian forces)

I buried my mother in late January. She hadn’t been able to walk anymore since the war started. In the days before she died, I fed her from a spoon, she had no strength left. Her condition got worse because of the stress: there are mines hitting our street and the neighbouring area constantly. The gate and the house walls were damaged by shrapnel. I don’t know what was the cause of death. You can’t go to a doctor, and no one would diagnose anything anyway: there are no specialists nor any equipment for that. They only treat acute conditions. The ER is open three times a week.

There’s no morgue anymore. No one comes in to take away the dead at home, they simply give you a death certificate at the hospital. Only the funeral service works all the time: people are dying a lot. I came to their office, it’s on the pier. Our beautiful and well-kept pier is gone now. It’s all been turned upside down: there are trenches everywhere. The beautiful blue spruce trees that I grew up with are now uprooted, destroyed, lying dead on the ground.

The Kherson region. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

The Kherson region. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

The cheapest casket costs 3,500 hryvnias [€89] now. It used to be 900 hryvnias [€23] before the war. 

Organising a modest funeral, without a wake, costs 12,000 hryvnias [300]. I bought a wreath for 350 hryvnias [9]: it used to cost 50 [1] at the most before the war. It wasn’t much to look at. We didn’t have a wake: some died, some left… And those who are still here don’t want to risk it: the cemetery comes under shelling a lot. We buried my mum together with my sister-in-law. While we stood there in front of the funeral pit, there were explosions going off near the city. That’s how we said our goodbyes, with explosions in the background.

I travelled by bike to visit my relatives, they live by the sanatorium. There are only three houses left on the entire street. There used to be about 30 of them. The rest have been destroyed. I started sobbing right on the street, I couldn’t hold it in. God, when will they finally leave our land?!

The Kherson region. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

The Kherson region. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

I didn’t leave with my kids after the war started, I couldn’t leave my mother. Everyone’s telling me now: you can go to a safe place. Where? I’m not going to go to Crimea or Russia. And you can’t get to Ukraine-controlled territory from the left bank either: everything’s in the line of fire. But the main reason is that I’m looking after my husband’s parents, too. They’re elderly and sick, like my mother, you can’t take them anywhere. They won’t survive a long trip.

The bank of the Dnipro from the side of Kherson. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

The bank of the Dnipro from the side of Kherson. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

I’m surrounded by children and old people now. My brother’s house was destroyed in another attack right before the New Year. The “orcs” gave us a “great” holiday present, my sister-in-law and I mopped up broken glass and slate. Now she moved in with us with the kids. We live together, the women and the children. We’re like both mum and dad for them now. The women have to do everything around the house now that the men are off to war.

Everything inside me is frozen now, like it’s made of stone. But sometimes I’m swept away by a wave of grief. I can’t hold it in. I run away as far as I can to the garden, then I hide behind the shed and howl. I try to do it silently, of course, so that the kids wouldn’t hear me, God forbid. Then I pull myself together and get back home. I put a smile on my face and try to cheer up the people around me, otherwise that would be the end of it. If I lose it, they won’t hold it together.

I quit my job the day before 24 February last year, I didn’t have time to go to the unemployment office. It’s been a year now with no money.

I couldn’t bear to take Russian handouts, I held on for as long as I could. But then my children didn’t have enough food to eat, so I had to grovel once, I got some money to buy them food.

We live off our garden. At first, my husband sent money to my bank account, but then the occupants blocked off the Internet, and we couldn’t use our bank cards anymore. I’ve been living off my friends’ money since the summer, I’ve spent all my savings now. We try to save money everywhere we can. The kids don’t even whine, they’ve grown up in an instant. My son is 12, and my daughter’s 10. In January, I got enough money to cook their dream meal: I bought some chicken wings and fried them up with potatoes. And I cooked an entire pot of borscht with meat broth. Now that was a feast!

Kherson. Photo: Telegram

Kherson. Photo: Telegram

‘Mass killing of the mobilised is underway’

Oleksandr, 45, entrepreneur
Kherson (liberated by Ukraine)

We’re under attack every day. You can’t predict where they’re going to hit next, it’s a lottery. So far, my house is in one piece, but my neighbours’ home has been hit recently. I’ve realised that the only way to protect yourself is to stay away from infrastructure objects, from schools and kindergartens, military facilities, and simply large groups of people. Basically, just stay home and hope you won’t get hit.

Many leave Kherson, especially those living by the river. They’re in the line of fire the most.

Still, there are attacks all around the city, too. The occupants shot up a trolleybus depot. My friends’ flat is by the depot: the blast took the windows clear off. The explosion was so strong that a woman from a neighbouring flat had her hand torn off. She died before the doctors could get there. Thankfully, my friends left back when the war started. They’re safe now. I visited their flat and boarded up their windows, so that snow and rain won’t get inside.

There are practically no power outages now. Sometimes it goes out if a power line is damaged during shelling or if a transformer station is hit. I’ve got solar panels installed, so short-term outages are not a problem for me. After Kherson was liberated, the power at my house was out for a month, so there was no heating. But me and my son cut up some twigs and used it to fire a small heating stove. So we didn’t get cold.

Kherson. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Kherson. Photo: Lidiya Mikhalchenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

I was left without my small business because of the war. A month ago, a high-explosive projectile hit my production unit with all the supplies and equipment. It all burned down, there’s nothing left. I know my employees are waiting for us to go back to work and earn some money, they’re desperate. But I don’t even know what to do now. I can earn money myself doing odd jobs: I can repair home appliances. But I don’t know how to help my staff.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m so tired of this war. I keep waiting for the Russians to run out of projectiles. They shoot at us so much, where do they even get this many munitions from? That’s got to be thousands of tonnes of metal by now. I think in the spring, they [the Russians] will go back in the direction of Crimea, they won’t let them just camp out here. And the mobilised won’t help either. What are they going to do with their rifles and shovels against modern artillery? I have a feeling that mass killing of the mobilised is underway now. When it’s done, the AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] will go on the offensive.

‘There’s five people left out of 36 flats’

Lidiya, 75, university professor
Kherson (liberated by Ukraine)

They’re shooting at us with terrible force. I haven’t left the house once since the autumn. The lift has been out of service for months. There’s electricity, but they don’t turn the lift on, because there’s no one to do maintenance if it breaks down.

I’m praying for everyone: for the residents of my beloved Kherson, and for the city itself. There’s five people left in our building, out of 36 flats. Half of the windows in my flat have a view of the Dnipro. All my neighbours had their windows shattered, but mine are still standing. Perhaps my prayers are working. Before the war, I wasn’t that religious, but now I have no other solace. The priest at the local church told me that prayer can help us survive. Though he left Kherson as soon as he could. But I can’t leave after my stroke, I can’t even leave the flat.

A shell that hit a residential building in Kherson. Photo:  Telegram

A shell that hit a residential building in Kherson. Photo: Telegram

My daughter and grandson left for Odesa. They didn’t want to leave me, but I basically forced them to go. I begged them to leave for a safe place for a long time, since the start of the occupation, but they wouldn’t go. And then in December, a shell hit their house, so they packed up their bags and left in a couple of hours. The house that they lived them belonged to my parents, it’s over a hundred years old, the walls are half-a-metre thick. After the attack, the walls are all that’s left. Now they’re in Odesa, they’re running out of money, my daughter can’t find a job, and renting a flat costs too much. My grandson calls me all the time crying, he wants to go home, he wants to see me. I’m crying all the time, too. Only prayer saves me from despair.

My daughter handed over my information to Kherson’s social services. They promised to send me humanitarian aid, but no one came. But I don’t even need anything, thankfully. I’ve got lots of grains, so I eat them. The neighbours left and brought me some of the food they had left, so now I’ve got meat in the fridge.

I’m afraid to turn on the TV. I don’t want to see the destruction in my country. I cry when I see the news. I’m glad that a new semester at university is starting. I’m preparing my lectures; it keeps me occupied and gives me the strength to live.

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