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An emotional return to liberated Kherson

November 25, 2022

Russian forces occupied Kherson for months. Earlier this month, Ukraine regained control. DW's Ihor Burdyga hails from the city. Here, he describes life in his liberated hometown.

Cars on a road driving into Kherson
Heading into the recently liberated city of KhersonImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

I have not been back to Kherson for a year. Returning after such a long time would have felt emotional even in times of peace. But my hometown is surrounded by war. In November, Ukraine retook the city, with Russian forces withdrawing to the eastern bank of River Dnipro. The people of Kherson have been hugging Ukrainian servicemen, asking for their autographs, but also waiting in line for water and humanitarian aid. They are learning how to shelter from incoming artillery fire, and recount the nine months spent under Russian occupation.

Restricted access

For now, access to Kherson remains tightly restricted. Military and police officials say "stabilization" measures are underway. Journalists and humanitarian aid workers are escorted into and out of the city by military forces.

Kherson attacks: DW's Nick Connolly in Ukraine

Traffic on the highway leading to the nearby regional capital of Mykolaiv is picking up. One can see columns of trucks delivering food stuff, fuel, emergency power generators and humanitarian aid. As some sections of the highway have been bombed, detours lead though nearby fields, which have become almost impassible due to the November rain. "My dears, where are you going, there is deep mud," says an elderly woman in the village of Kyselivka, pointing to a bogged down post van.

The remains of the famous Antonivskyi Bridge that once spanned the River Dnipro are still visible. It was the largest in all of Kherson. The Russians used it to invade the city in late February, blowing it up after their recent withdrawal. An old graffito celebrates the Russian victory — a more recent one curses the invaders.

The remains of Antonivskyi Bridge
The remains of Antonivskyi Bridge Image: Igor Burdyga/DW

Standing in the open by the river is dangerous, as Russian forces immediately begin shooting from the other side. They have taken up positions near the town of Oleshki. Ukrainian soldiers manning a checkpoint close by tell us to hide under a bridge and recommend we quickly move on.

A city under attack

Kherson residents are elated about their city's liberation, yet also frightened that the war could enter a new phase. Kherson, after all, it very close to the frontlines.

Soldiers and civilians seek safety from Russian shelling
Soldiers and civilians seek safety from Russian shellingImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

Soldiers say not all residents have fully understood what this means. The city has no functioning air raid sirens and no shelters. Russian forces have been shelling the city from across the river. Explosions can be heard in central Kherson. Civil infrastructure, military sites and residential buildings are the targets. The number of civilian casualties and deaths is rising. 

Two men are tearing town a large poster on Perekopska street celebrating the Russian annexation. They say Russians had put such posters up all over Kherson. Removing them all will take "at least another week," one tells me.

Two workers remove Russian propaganda posters
Two workers remove Russian propaganda postersImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

The director of a museum dedicated to Ukraine's history in World War II, Yuriy Savchuk, carefully folds up one of the posters. He returned to Kherson immediately after its liberations to document the course of the war. "I have already conducted 50 interviews," the historian proudly says.

Many here are happy to share their experience and talk about how they resisted the Russians. Serhij Anatolijovitsh, a retired doctor, offers to show us a Russian torture chamber in a former jail, where the occupiers held dissidents. Ukrainian police offices guard the entrance, inside, investigators secure evidence. "In the morning, you could hear the Russian national anthem, inmates were forced to sing it," a woman running a nearby shop remembers. "In the evening, we heard awful screams." After the liberation of Kherson, someone wrote "Glory to Ukraine and its armed forces" on the door.

Clearning mines

Before pulling out, Russian forces boobytrapped many buildings. Now, sappers are hard at work clearing public buildings, even libraries, of deadly mines. The Russian intelligence agency had used the library before the withdrawal. And Ukrainian sappers could not safely clear a police headquarters, so it was blown up just in case.

Before leaving the city, Russia blew up key infrastructure. Today, Kherson has no running water and no electricity. Residents with buckets and empty water bottles wait in line at the city's last few intact wells. Gradually, mobile phone and internet access is restored. In the early days of liberation, Starlink terminals were delivered and set up in the city, where locals gathered to get online. A sign in Kherson's Park of Glory warns that "only 64 people can connect at once."

An elerdly man in an army jacket guards what is left of a local television tower
Volodymyr guards what is left of a local television towerImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

The Russian also blew up the city's television tower, which they had captured early in the war to shut down Ukrainian broadcasts. Now, an elderly man wearing an army jacket named Volodymyr guards what's left of the mangled tower. He has a herniated disk but says he cannot go to hospital, because "when I'm not here, who will look after all this?" He says the site is of "full of precious equipment and metals, I don't want anyone stealing it." 

Volodymyr says he signed up with Ukraine's territorial defense forces in a Kherson suburb before Russia invaded. Then he relayed information about Russian troop movements towards a strategically important airport to Ukraine's army. "I was crouching at a graveyard, pretending to mourn my wife," he says. "I registered everything that happened and passed it on to the Ukrainian reconnaissance. I told them the shop had two ventilators and five cans of meat — that was our secret code for helicopters and troop carriers."

Kherson locals receive humanitarian aid
Kherson locals receive humanitarian aidImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

Waiting in line

The people Kherson spend much time waiting in line to get water, go online, or get Ukrainian SIM cards.

On the first day of the Ukrainian takeover, celebrations broke out on Liberty Square. Everyday, concerts are held there, though most locals are busy queuing for free sanitary products, food, warm clothing and medicine.

Stores still stock Russian goods, above all cigarettes and drinks, though supplies are running low. Sales staff say fresh supplies have not arrived since October.

This article was translated from German.