There are signatures on the Ukrainian flag around Oleksii Kosenko’s upper body. Of Ukrainian soldiers, he says beaming on Kherson’s central Freedom Square. “They are stars. Superheroes.” Kosenko is not the only one on the square with a Ukrainian flag. Everywhere you look, residents of the liberated southern Ukrainian city walk around wearing the national blue and yellow. They take selfies of the plinth on which Soviet leader Lenin used to stand, but which is now decorated with flowers and flags.
Read also: Eight months of Russian occupation have left deep marks in Kherson
“An unbelievable joy”, Kosenko (30) was surprised when Kherson was liberated on November 11. He cannot stop talking out of enthusiasm. “When our soldiers rode into the city that day and I saw the flag on Freedom Square – I still can’t put it into words. They got flowers. We took pictures. They sign my flag. I walked around the city a lot. I have never seen so many happy faces.”
Less than a week after the liberation of Kherson, the smiles on their faces can still be seen. The audible boom of the artillery shelling outside the city doesn’t scare anyone off the square. But joy can quickly turn to sadness and pain in Kherson over eight months of Russian occupation.
The city does not look badly affected. Apartment buildings are standing. Roads are intact. The liberation went without the dreaded major blow. Without resistance, the Russian soldiers retreated to the left bank of the Dnieper River.
With this, the Ukrainian armed forces managed to take back a major city for the first time since the Russian invasion. A sensitive blow to Russia, which captured the city in March. President Vladimir Putin had annexed the Kherson region at the end of September. Now he is losing ground there and the Ukrainian armed forces are turning their attention to Crimea, which has been annexed by Russia. For Russia, the conquest of the southern coast, including Odessa, is no longer feasible, while the liberation of Kherson brings Ukraine closer to control of the southern coast, including the ports, and thus access to the Black Sea for export.
Ukrainian soldiers clear the road to Kherson of (land) mines.
Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin Ukrainian soldiers clear the road to Cherson of (land) mines.
Foto’s Kostyantyn Chernichkin
While Kherson has not seen any major destruction on the outside, according to Ukraine, the facilities have been destroyed by Russia. The city is without water, heating, telephone connection and internet. Nor is there electricity to bake bread, for example. The residents depend on outside help.
So on Freedom Square people are now running towards four delivery vans with food and medicines. Children and the elderly wait in line for the car doors to open. A few hundred meters away, residents are standing on the street with their telephones near a Starlink dish, which gives them internet via this satellite. At the same time, in the absence of other news sources, they receive a newspaper from the government. Everywhere in the city, residents queue at water points with empty bottles.
The laughter about the liberation disappears among the residents when memories of the Russian occupation surface. Then come the stories of Russian oppression, of arrests, torture. About the fear of spies. About the stress and fear of being picked up on the street and disappearing in a torture chamber. There was no laughter outside.
Kosenko hid his blue and yellow flag in the attic. He hid his blue and yellow ribbons, his books on Ukrainian history, his novels by Ukrainian writers. “The police could raid your home at any moment. Pro-Ukrainian activists were hunted down. People went into hiding in cellars.”
People queue for the distribution of emergency supplies. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin
Outside the center, residents have placed a wooden memorial in a grove, hung with artificial flowers. “They have gone to heaven,” is written in black felt-tip pen on a white placard. Eighteen Ukrainians of the Territorial Forces are buried in the grove. They fought the Russian soldiers with only Molotov cocktails and were killed in the fight, says Anatoli Goedzenko (62).
His home is opposite the grove, close to where the battle took place. “The Russians left the bodies for three days. On the fourth day, the local residents buried them.”
Goedzenko lights another cigarette in the street, his dog behind the fence barks persistently. How did he experience the moment when the Ukrainian soldiers entered the city? He gasped for breath, fighting back tears. “Euphoria, oh yeah. I could hardly hold back my tears. We ran out into the street to greet the soldiers. We celebrated with shashlik, vodka and cognac. We saved it for the liberation.”
The house of Anatoli Goedzenko (62) is opposite the grove, close to the place where the fight took place. “The Russians left the bodies for three days. On the fourth day, the local residents buried them.”
Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin The home of Anatoli Goedzenko (62) is opposite the grove where eighteen Ukrainians of the territorial forces are buried. “The Russians left the bodies for three days. On the fourth day, the local residents buried them.”
Foto’s Kostyantyn Chernichkin
What Goedzenko feels about the liberation? “Ukraine,” he says curtly. “Freedom. No more Russians, no more Nazis. If she didn’t like the way you looked, you could be arrested. My boss has been deported to Crimea. The Russians looted everything, they even took a dog house. Would they have wanted my dog too?”
Russian billboards in the city presented the residents with a beautiful life. Some have been torn apart, but most are still hanging above the roads in their entirety: ‘Kherson is Russian’, one shouts. Child benefit, the other promises. Other signs mention free medicines, social stability, security and a dignified life.
A vandalized portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian troops are said to have held inhabitants of Kherson on this site during the occupation. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin
Svetlana Mironenko (58) noticed nothing of this. She digs a hole in the ground near the garden in front of her flat. Next to her is a small pine bush that she wants to plant. The bush is called “Victory,” she says as she creates, swinging back and forth between joy and pain. She received it as a gift from the downstairs neighbor because of the liberation. “From my balcony I will be able to see Victory grow every day.”
Her house is a few hundred meters from a prison that has become infamous. The garages here were used as torture chambers, Ukrainian authorities say. Local residents would have heard the screams of the torture. Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky reported this week that 63 bodies had been found in the Kherson region with signs of torture.
Mironenko – her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, black sneakers with white dots – falls silent before talking briefly about the occupation period. She sighs. It was sad, she says. She sighs again. “I don’t know how to explain this. You lived in constant fear of the Russians. It was continuous terror. The prison. Our people were arrested. They could take everything from you.”
She decides to continue gardening. While her upstairs neighbor watches, Mironenko gives Victory extra water.
Svetlana Mironenko waters her bush ‘Victory’. Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 19, 2022