On Sunday, residents of Kherson marched through the streets of their city carrying a large Ukrainian flag to celebrate the liberation of their city from Russian occupiers. The residents are glad to be rid of the invaders. Their joy mixes with the traumatic memory of what they had to endure under occupation, and the challenges that lie ahead of them, as the fleeing Russians destroyed much of the city’s critical infrastructure
The joyous crowd chanted “Kherson is Ukraine” as they marched.
“Referendum” w ����#Kherson���� ��#WojnaWUkrainie #RussianUkrainianWar #KhersonisUkraine pic.twitter.com/pssclHlaLI
— Edward Weinert (@EdwardWeinert) November 12, 2022
Russia would have everyone, or at least their domestic audience, believe that it was the Russian invaders, who entered the city in early March, that were the ones treated as the liberators.
The only thing the way the Russians were greeted and the reaction of the people to the arrival of the Ukrainian forces have in common is the abundance of Ukrainian flags. The mood was visibly and starkly different.
Kherson in March when russia came vs Kherson in November when Ukraine returned pic.twitter.com/cbtxbKekpz
— InUkraine (@InUAOfficial) November 12, 2022
❗️ Kherson city, beginning of March 2022, time of occupation, people resisting. ���� #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/rZ14dL2FuU
— Slava Ukraini ���� (@Heroiam_Slava) November 11, 2022
And as a heartwarming and inspiring sight of the massive crowd awash with blue-and-yellow flags was, it should not be understated what steps the Khersonians had to take to be able to welcome their liberators with the national colours.
Just as in many other places from which the invaders were chased away, there are numerous videos of people digging up jars in which they hid Ukrainian flags to prevent the Russians from disrespecting them. And to retrieve them from their hiding places when the time was right.
This is how #Kherson residents hid #Ukrainian flags during the #Russian occupation of the city. pic.twitter.com/cQGglkfSW6
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) November 13, 2022
“I have been here from the first date of occupation and we have heard everything, and we have seen everything: the first shots, the first tanks on the bridge,” recounted Olga Fedorova, an English teacher and Kherson resident. “ We still had the connection and we followed the news on mobile [phone] because the first citizens who were close to the [Antonovskyi] bridge, to the active actions they have seen everything, and they screened on their mobiles and sent to the [social media] group of our city. And we saw everything there, a row of tanks.”
The most striking images that stuck with many were likely the crowds of civilians trying to block the advance of the Russians. But although the invaders advanced quickly, it would be wrong to assume that they encountered no armed resistance.
“On the bridge, we saw very terrible, terrible fights,” said Fedorova. Perhaps the Russians expected they would simply parade into the city.
The invaders also encountered armed resistance within the city itself. Those brave enough to confront the soldiers often met a brutal end.
marching across our land, these people came out with “Molotov cocktails” to meet the enemy horde, armed to the teeth, and began to attack the enemy’s armored vehicles.
I can’t imagine how high the degree of love for the native land was to commit such a feat.
They were shot.. /2
— Justartsandstuff ������������ (@justartsndstuff) November 11, 2022
That is how the eight months of their life in what she described as effectively Russian captivity began.
“We, all this time, were like in prison. We could walk around the city, but everywhere we saw these Russian troops with a weapon,” recounted Fedorova. “And you couldn’t bring your mobile [phone] with you because they can read it. They could read what you have in it. They could just catch you.”
Russian occupation would be an incomplete experience without widespread looting of even the most mundane objects.
“But the Russian army, they have stolen everything. They have stolen our trolley buses, our buses, our ambulances, they have even stolen the railway for children,” said Fedorova.
#Russian invaders continue looting everything they can in occupied Kherson, southern #Ukraine. This time #Russians decided that a toy train must be transferred to #Russia. Why on Earth would #Ukrainian #kids need something like that? pic.twitter.com/fJLJx41xlO
— BREAKING NEWS: UKRAINE (@MrFukkew) November 7, 2022
“It was like in the playground. They have stolen even a toy for children. Everything,” the befuddled teacher told Reuters.
“Everything” is a figure of speech not far from the actual picture. Shortly before they fled, Russians looted the zoo for animals, including a llama, and for some reason, a raccoon.
Russians didn't just steal racoons from Kherson Zoo – here they are making off with a llama. They appear to be from Taigan Lion Park in the Belogorsk region of Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea. It's a safari park with 80 lions and 50 tigers. No wonder the llama seems reluctant. pic.twitter.com/XrMdbvccY5
— Euan MacDonald (@Euan_MacDonald) November 13, 2022
For his part, the speaker of the Odessa military administration Serhiy Bratchuk stated that the Ukrainian side was ready to exchange ten captured Russian mobilized soldiers for the stolen raccoon.
— Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (@khpg) November 13, 2022
Hopefully, the raccoon will be repatriated soon.
In the meantime, Ms Fedorova said that the residents feel safer now, with the Russian soldiers gone and the Ukrainian police patrolling their city’s streets.
“On 11 November, we saw the sun and we, I, understood that something changed in the air,” Fedorova spoke of the day of the liberation. “We didn’t know that our Ukrainian army was coming because we don’t have water, we don’t have light, we don’t have any connection, no mobile, no WiFi, no nothing.”
Eventually, the reality of what is about to happen began to dawn on the residents.
“We just understood that there are no Russian troops in this city and something has changed. And we heard this atmosphere. It was changing, people were smiling and probably somebody knew something.”
She recounts the initial disbelief she felt when she began to comprehend that they were free again and crowds of people crying with joy. To her, the situation is still something of a dream.
“It was so, it was so wonderful. We couldn’t believe; we still can’t believe that our Ukrainian army is here,” she said. “We have been waiting for them all this time, all these eight and a half months, we have been waiting for them.”
As the Russians fled, people began to tear down posters proclaiming that “Russia is here forever”.
“Russia is forever here”, said a poster in Bilozerka near Kherson. Well, not really!
To everyone in the world, including ASEAN where I currently am: Ukraine is gaining another important victory right now and proves that whatever Russia says or does, Ukraine will win. pic.twitter.com/8bc4JGNajX
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) November 11, 2022
Ukrainian president addresses troops in Kherson, thanks allies for support
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Kherson and addressed troops there on Monday, days after Russian forces were forced to retreat from…
Ms Fedorova begs to differ. On Monday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to the liberated city, and as she sees it “all these people, official people here, it means that Kherson is Ukraine forever. It was Ukraine. It is Ukraine. It will be Ukrainian all the time.”
The challenges ahead
“We are waiting for our supermarkets to open with our Ukrainian goods, not with Russian, because they just brought all the Russian goods here,” said Ms Fedorova. “They are terrible. Even my cat doesn’t eat their food.”
Poor quality of Russian pet food, however, is the least of the worries that the city’s residents have to deal with now.
Before fleeing, anything that the Russian forces could not steal, they destroyed. This included the critical infrastructure in the city, and so the locals are now living without water, power, heat, or Internet. Yuriy Sobolevskiy, first deputy chairman of Kherson regional council, told Ukrainian TV that even as the authorities were working to restore critical services, the humanitarian situation remained “very difficult”. President Zelenskyy himself warned that repairs will take time.
“There is a signal here but only when Russian sim cards are used, the signal comes from Oleshki or Golaya Pristan. But generally one cannot talk long, the best way is to send a voice or text message, says local resident, Hennadii. “They say there is Kyivstar [Ukrainian mobile provider] at the central Freedom square. I will go later and try to get a connection. They say there is even WiFi but it is poor, the Internet doesn’t work.”
But a slow Internet connection, infuriating as it must be, is not the biggest problem for the people of Kherson. Some locals are drawing water directly from the Dnipro River.
“It is not for drinking,” said Ihor, as he was filling up containers with river water. “It is for dishwashing, we boil the water and wash the dishes with it. Thank God it is all doable.”
He also had some warm words for the Russians under whose occupation he had to live for the better part of the year.
“Those jackals will get what they deserve. One day they will wash themselves with water from our toilets,” he said.
One thing is clear. Although the situation is hard, it is preferable to Russian presence.
“Now it is much better, happier,” said Oleksandr, another local resident. “There is a lot of joy, you can see it looking at the people who came out to the streets after the occupation. Ukraine has arrived. It is a happy time but also sad because there is no electricity.”
He was also at the river bank when he spoke to the reporters. But he did not go there to draw water but to catch fish in order to relax.
“Things can only get better. The city has been de-occupied, everything will be restored, all will be fine.” said Oleksandr, enjoying a sunny afternoon in a city free of Russians.
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