KHERSON, Ukraine — The road to Kherson, scattered with burnt-out tanks and vehicles, at one point stops being a functional road due to a collapsed bridge, requiring a hastily constructed dirt track. The post-apocalyptic scenery around Ukraine’s recently liberated city is unsurprising considering that until about a week ago, this area of otherwise unremarkable countryside was amongst the most proudly contested pieces of land on earth. Almost every building on both sides of the road shows some sign of damage from the fighting. At least half of them are totally destroyed.
Every so often the desolated villages demonstrate signs of life; smoke from a chimney or sheets of plastic replacing smashed windows, blown out by months of shelling.
In the exceptionally flat surrounding fields, numerous Russian 220mm rockets, fired in salvos of 16 from Russian BM-27 “Hurricane” multiple rocket launchers, have embedded themselves in the earth, pointing skyward like lethal scarecrows. Depending on the exact munition fired, each rocket can scatter as many as 312 antipersonnel landmines or 30 cluster bombs, leaving the surrounding farmland saturated with unexploded ordnance that will likely take years, possibly decades to fully clear. It’s a laborious and dangerous process that Ukrainian technicians had already begun.
In the center of Kherson, the celebrations were still ongoing, days after the city was officially retaken by the Ukrainian military from its Russian occupiers. Kherson was the first and only provincial capital the Russians took following their Feb. 24 invasion. It is the capital of one of the four regions ceremonially and illegally “annexed” by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Putin’s forces retreated across the Dnipro River to the right bank, blowing the main bridge across, in an effort to “preserve the lives of [their] servicemen,” as Russian commander Gen. Sergey Surovikin phrased it.
Ukrainians wrapped in the blue and yellow flag asked anyone dressed in camouflage — and many who were not — to sign their names on their flags, like football fans trying to get the entire team to sign a replica jersey. An antique Ukrainian car, with a big flag flying outside its window, drove laps of the square blasting German electronic dance music from its open windows.
The music did little to drown out the sounds of outgoing and incoming artillery in the relatively near distance, but it did little to dampen the carnival atmosphere in the square. Local residents, having lived with the sound and fury of modern warfare for the past nine months, seemed entirely unworried by the relatively continuous crump of Russian shells landing and the sharper retorts of Ukrainian return fire.
Resistance in Kherson began as soon as the Russian occupation did. Videos produced at the start of the war show residents in the city staring down Russian tanks and armed soldiers, who often appeared more terrified of the population than vice versa. As reported by the New York Times, teachers in Kherson refused orders to make their students sing the Russian national anthem at the start of classes, chanting “Glory to Ukraine!” instead.
In front of the regional administration building, the Ukrainian government had installed a mobile phone mast, hooked up to a SpaceX “Starlink” satellite internet system, to provide a bubble of network reception over a few blocks. Generators provided power to charge devices, giving Kherson’s remaining residents the ability to contact friends and relatives on the outside world, the first opportunity many of them will have had for weeks, maybe months.
The city’s power, water and heating systems are almost entirely out of service, destroyed by the Russians as they retreated.
The Ukrainian government has been attempting to restore all services to the city, approving a reconstruction package worth $2.7 million on Tuesday of this week. “We have to start reconstruction in the liberated territories of the Kherson region as soon as possible. First of all, restore damaged objects of critical infrastructure and provide people with electricity and heat,” Ukrainian Economic Minister Yuliya Svyrydenko said in a statement.
The 656-foot Kherson TV tower, the tallest structure in the region, and a feature of the city skyline for the past two decades, was one of the last casualties of the Russian scorched-earth campaign and one of many examples of civilian infrastructure destroyed by the retreating forces days before they fled across the Dnipro.
A large range of volunteers and aid organizations, mostly Ukrainian but also from around the world, had stepped up to assist the relief effort. Yahoo News saw a Western aid organization donate a British ambulance and dispense a variety of medications to the awaiting crowds. It was a haphazard process, with an American volunteer handing out medications to anyone who professed a need for them.
Evidence that Kherson was until recently an unwilling part of what Russian President Vladimir Putin considers his dominion is everywhere. Countless large billboards display Russian propaganda advocating a “yes” vote in the staged referendum, and expounding the benefits of “rejoining” Russia. Many have now been defaced or destroyed, but many that remained out of the reach of the locals remain intact.
Directly facing the regional administration building, one such billboard advertises the sham referendum Russia held in the region in September. Locals confirmed to Yahoo News that Russian soldiers had forced their way into their homes and made them participate in the plebiscite at gunpoint.
“Thank God we have been liberated,” an emotional resident, who declined to provide her name, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag, said before deriding the results of the staged referendum. “Kherson is not a catering city. No matter what they say.”
Echoing previously reported events, residents in Kherson told Yahoo News of infighting between the different ethnic groups and factions that made up the Russian forces. Regular members of the Russian army from the Buryat minority were said to have exchanged fire with Chechen auxiliaries. In another reported incident, first reported by Yahoo News at the end of August, contract soldiers and members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) managed to get into a deadly firefight that left at least three dead soldiers.
Some Russian soldiers are allegedly still hiding in the city.
On the outskirts of Kherson, Yahoo News witnessed the arrest of a man whom the Ukrainian army believed was a Kremlin soldier in civilian clothes to avoid detection. He was marched off, blindfolded and bound by a Ukrainian soldier. For him, at least, the war was over.