Chris York speaks to those who have been living with terror in the only regional Ukrainian capital Russia had captured since its reinvasion in February
Sign up for our weekly Behind the Headlines email and get a free copy of Byline Times posted to you
At a birthday party in the suburbs of Kyiv last Friday, the first toast of the night wasn’t for the man celebrating the beginning of his 31st year, it was for the soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces who that day had finally liberated the city of Kherson.
In the middle of a blackout, illuminated by candles, glasses were raised and clinked: “To the ZSU!”
The biggest celebrations were of course in Kherson itself, where residents celebrated after more than eight months of living under Russian occupation. Among the crowds that gathered in the city’s main square was 47-year-old Lada and her nine-year-old son.
“It was as if I had been sitting underwater for a long time, thinking that there would be no more air, and then I suddenly emerged,” she told Byline Times by phone. “There are no words.”
Stepan, a 39-year-old software engineer, who spent the duration of the war so far in Kherson with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, echoed the sentiment, said it was “hard to express everything”.
“There is joy, happiness – my child cried from happiness for the first time.”
Yet the situation in Kherson remains perilous and residents now face the daunting task of trying to return to some kind of normal existence, hampered by numerous challenges caused in large part by Russia’s destruction of civilian infrastructure as it left the city.
“Currently, we have neither electricity nor water,” said Stepan. “The situation with medicines is also challenging, there are many older people left, and winter is coming.”
There is also a continuing threat from Russian forces despite their retreat to the left bank of the Dnipro River and artillery exchanges between the two warring sides can still be heard.
“I'm still anxious about some of my friends who are still under occupation on the left bank of the Dnipro river,” 44-year-old writer Denys Martynov who grew up in Kherson and currently resides in Kyiv, told Byline Times. “I'm worried Russians are going to shell Kherson.”
Kherson was the only regional capital the Russians had managed to capture since the reinvasion of Ukraine in February and the decision to abandon the city was the third major Russian retreat of the war.
Deprived of battlefield successes that can be sold to a domestic audience as evidence the so-called 'special operation' is going to plan, the Kremlin has instead turned to attacking cities, targeting civilian infrastructure in a futile attempt to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people.
Residents of Kyiv and other cities had been expecting a fresh wave of missile attacks this week as particularly large barrages have in recent weeks, followed Russian defeats on the battlefield or events embarrassing to the Kremlin such as the Crimean Bridge explosion early last month.
On Tuesday, Russia launched the largest missile strike of the war, hitting Kyiv, the western cities of Lviv and Rivne, the southern cities of Odesa and Mikolaiv, Kharkiv in the northeast, the central cities of Kryvyi Rih and Poltava and Zhytomyr in the north.
Despite the widespread damage to infrastructure and power outages reported across the country, Ukrainians are unanimous in what they believe will come next.
“All steps taken by Russia so far have led to defeats,” 40-year-old Oleksandr Sydorenko who left Kherson for Odesa earlier this year told this newspaper. “So the next steps will lead to more of the same.”
Lada said her immediate concern is Russian shelling of her home city but that “whatever they do – they have lost”. She added: “Now I'm even more sure about that than I was before the liberation of Kherson.”
The sentiment is far from unfounded – the city of Kherson and the surrounding region is a key strategic area in the conflict that borders Crimea, the annexation of which in 2014 is one of Vladimir Putin’s key achievements during his two decades in power.
If Ukrainian forces can continue their push to retake the rest of the region, Russia would be deprived of a critical land corridor to the Black Sea peninsula.
Don't Miss a Story
It would also mean that Ukraine’s long-range artillery could be in range of the substantial Russian military stationed there, not to mention Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from which many of the missiles that hit Ukraine’s cities are launched from.
Politically, losing Crimea is not something the Kremlin could spin like the 'goodwill gesture' retreats it has managed so far and would almost certainly be a fatal blow to Putin’s leadership.
While Ukraine is pressing its advantage after victory in Kherson, retaking Crimea is still some way off and there are more immediate concerns for Ukraine.
In a now tragically predictable pattern, it’s almost inevitable that scenes of the joy of liberation will be steadily replaced in the world’s media by stories and images of the atrocities committed by Russian forces while they were in control of Kherson, a precedent set early in the war in places like Bucha and Irpin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that investigators had already documented “more than 400 Russian war crimes” and that the “Russian Army left behind the same savagery it did in other regions of the country it entered".
But for now, the celebrations are still continuing in Kherson.
“Every day we go to the main square where you can touch the soldiers,” said Lada. “We hug, hang around their necks, touch their hands, and look into their eyes. We worry they will get tired of our hugs.”
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.