The waiting game

A year after Ukraine partially retook control of the Kherson region, residents on both sides of the Dnipro tell their stories

The waiting game

Kherson, November 2023. Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu / Getty Images

One year ago Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Kherson, as the Russian military withdrew to the left bank of the Dnipro River. Those still under Russian occupation on the other side of the river continue to await their liberation. Kherson residents on both banks of the river share their experiences over the past year as well as their hopes for the future.

‘My lovely little house floated off somewhere towards Odesa’

Andriy, 43, a volunteer living in Ukrainian-controlled Kherson

“The ‘visitors’ on the left bank of the Dnipro identify where volunteers are working, then send a drone to drop a grenade on them. Our friends’ minibus was blown to pieces. They were shelled when they set up a humanitarian aid distribution point near the railway station recently. The minibus was distinctive, and decorated in a way that made it clear it was a charity vehicle. A drone hovered directly above them, the drone pilot confirmed they were volunteers, and then dropped a grenade on them.

There are problems with locals, too — there are still collaborators among us. There was an aid distribution point in Kherson. It wasn’t publicised to prevent ‘visitors’ from identifying it, but someone from our side leaked the coordinates. A Shahed drone landed there and destroyed a school.

I was in Kherson throughout the occupation hiding from the Russian security services. Just a few days after the Russians entered the city, soldiers in balaclavas came to our house. They broke down the door, terrifying my elderly mother. I wasn’t home. I was with my wife at our dacha, which we’d bought a couple of days before the war. I hadn’t got round to updating the details in the land registry, so the dacha wasn’t listed as my property in the database, and they didn’t search for me there.

That turned out to be a stroke of luck — otherwise I would have been taken ‘to the basement’ like some of my friends. After Kherson was liberated, we met up and they told me about the horrific torture they’d been subjected to.

But there were funny stories, too. In summer, my friend was walking down the street. His shoe tore — it was blue. He used yellow tape to hold it together until he got home, but was stopped by a patrol who accused him of spreading Ukrainian propaganda. They made him remove the tape and walk home in his torn shoe. He’s lucky they didn’t take him ‘to the basement' — the ‘visitors’ could have done anything to him.

From 24 February to 12 November [2022], my wife and I didn’t leave our dacha. Why to the 12th? For the last two and a half weeks of the occupation, we had no signal whatsoever, nothing was working, and we could only guess what was happening outside. And on the evening of 12 November, our neighbour came and said, ‘Guys, what are you cooped up here for? Our soldiers are in Kherson. Everyone’s out celebrating in the centre.’ We couldn’t believe it — a feeling of utter joy.

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu via Getty Images

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu via Getty Images

What did we live on? We worked remotely on our computers as long as we had signal and got paid on our bank cards. When they blocked Ukrainian providers, we bought Russian SIM cards and carried on working. Without them, we’d have been completely cut off from the outside world.

When we lost internet, it became impossible to find out whether it was safe to make a dash to the shop for food. Even though we mostly ate fish we caught in the Dnipro, we still needed grain, bread, and oil. We would go by boat down the river to the shop.

The most challenging part was leaving the boat and walking to the shop, exactly 970 metres over land. It was important for us to find a shop that wasn’t only safe to get to, but that also sold Ukrainian produce. We couldn’t eat the Russian stuff: it’s not food, it’s awful — so tasteless and unnatural.

We can look back and laugh about it now, but at the time it was psychologically very difficult. The constant danger was exhausting. Boats of ‘visitors’ would often come cruising down the Dnipro, and while they’d usually just pass us by, those bastards once came onto the lake and stole our fishing nets and catch.

I don’t have the dacha anymore. My lovely little house floated off somewhere towards Odesa during the flood [after the collapse of the Kakhovka Dam].

After Kherson was liberated, the Russians started shelling the city heavily — they’re literally destroying it. We initially left for Kyiv, but came back two months later. I can’t live without my hometown, without the river, without the reed marshes. I haven’t left since I got back.

This past year, Kherson has been shelled daily and with varying degrees of intensity. Many buildings have been destroyed. This morning, I went to my car and saw a crater 10 metres from my garage and shrapnel marks on the gates, none of which had been there yesterday.

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu / Getty Images

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu / Getty Images

I volunteer by day and work on my computer in the evenings. My friend and I look after several pensioners whose homes were flooded. We bring them whatever we can find. I often ask them if they want to evacuate to a relatively safe area of Ukraine, but they always refuse and say they’re too old to start a new life elsewhere. There’s a free evacuation train from Kherson to Khmelnytskyi twice a week. There, they put you up in a gym with 120 beds for five days and help you with displaced person benefits, but then you’re on your own.

My income is enough for me to relocate, but despite trying, I can’t leave my native Kherson, especially the river. Besides, I’m tied down here with the old folk whose homes were flooded and who now live in the surviving dachas. We ferry food to them on boats, we know the soldiers; we’re the only ones they let through, nobody else is allowed. The Russians attack us with their drones from time to time. But somehow we’ve been spared; there have been explosions all around us, but we haven’t been hit once. Our boat was pierced by shrapnel, but we’ve patched it up. These trips are only scary before they actually begin. Once you’re moving, the fear dissipates. You’re calm and collected and act according to the situation. When you’re back on dry land, the fear of what you’ve just experienced can catch up with you. But that comes later.”

‘My children and I are now homeless. Our house collapsed’

Natalya, 40, unemployed, from Hola Prystan in Russian-occupied Kherson

“The hospital is gone, there’s no medical support whatsoever any more. If you’re ill, your only option is to go to Skadovsk. I tell my children, ‘Brush your teeth well. God forbid something starts hurting — there’s nowhere to go for help.’

We don’t have a police force either. Looting — mostly by Russian soldiers — is rampant, though we have a lot of our own criminals, too.

Everyone who stayed in the city has moved to the one area that wasn’t flooded. There’s one functioning shop here, but the market is slowly starting to come back to life. In terms of food, we have everything, but there are issues with clothes and shoes — lots of people lost them in the flood. Some wheeler dealers come from elsewhere to sell clothes, but they’re very poor quality and become unwearable after a month at most.

My children and I are now homeless. Our house collapsed. We live in my friend’s house; she left. My parents' house survived the flood, but only the walls are left — we had to throw everything away. I often think how lucky it is that my mother passed away before the war and that she didn’t see all this horror. My husband has been in Odesa since the start of the war. He was in the territorial defence, then enlisted to join the army, but they’re keeping him in reserve for now. 

People ask, ‘Why don’t you go to Odesa?’ But they’re being shelled just like we are, and there’s no work there anyway. It’s a city of a million inhabitants, but it’s been brought to a standstill because the port isn’t working. What would we live on there? I can’t leave my elderly relatives who live here, anyway.

Part of Hola Prystan is now connected to mains gas, and we have electricity. We are endlessly grateful for our electricians, who are quick to get everything working again after shelling.

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu / Getty Images

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Anadolu / Getty Images

I’m just waiting for the Ukrainian army to come, although I realise that we won’t be liberated any time soon. A year ago, we were so happy for the people of Kherson and hoped we’d soon see our soldiers on the left bank of the Dnipro too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Now, we live one day at a time. We realise that shells can land anywhere, at any time. Our attitude is: ‘Thank God I survived today.’ Waking up in the morning is also a blessing. I try to work a lot around the house and in the garden, just so I don’t have time to dwell on my thoughts. Then you’re tired and you fall asleep straight away. We’re living in other people’s homes and working in other people’s gardens. But what will happen later, when the war ends and the owners come back? Where will we go? The future is completely uncertain and unpredictable.

The occupiers have started shelling us less frequently. They must be saving their shells. About a quarter of the city remains relatively intact. Some buildings were destroyed by the flood, others by shells. We find it very amusing when the occupiers film their fake videos, where they talk about Hola Prystan being completely rebuilt after the flood. Only the streets and houses that survived the flood make it into the frame.

You know, if someone had told me before 2014 that Russia would annex Crimea and then attack us, I’d have spat in their face. Because, even in my worst nightmare, I couldn’t have imagined this.”

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