Kherson: Ukrainians celebrated the liberation of the city. Months later, the mood is dark
Gone are the acres of cheering crowds that filled Liberty Square with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags swaying like ears of wheat when the Russians were driven out. Now the crackle of Russian artillery gnawing through the city echoes around the square.
The harvest of victory in the fall was a bitter winter.
In the previous 48 hours, Kherson had suffered more than 130 rocket, artillery, mortar and even direct tank fire strikes on the Dnieper River by Russian forces. Four people were killed during the same period, another dozen or more injured.
Several warehouses were also set on fire. One of them stored fireworks – bizarre goods to be stored in the midst of bombardment. But also a symbol of hope, in the face of a bloody experience, that there may be something more to celebrate, one day.
The regional capital was captured last March at the start of the Russian invasion. Many of its 290,000 citizens then left. Others appear to have fled since his release in November. The Ukrainian administration has implored them to leave ever since to escape Russian bombardment.
Young mothers, pensioners and a handful of drunks rush and stagger as fast as they can across Liberty Square to catch buses. Time spent above ground, just a few hundred meters from the river, is time spent in mortal danger – especially here.
A few days earlier, a piece of the town hall had been torn off like a slice of cake by a Russian missile. Part of the local administration building collapsed onto the street.
Above our heads, Ukrainian jets roar through the low clouds – at least everyone thinks “they are Ukrainians”.
The bridges to the part under Russian control, where the Kremlin invaders still control 60% of the province, have all been destroyed.
At night, reconnaissance units on both sides probe enemy positions or track down command centers. A Ukrainian officer, who uses the call sign “Sneaky”, said his men, which included a number of American and British volunteers, had “killed 16 Russians” while on patrol days earlier.
“We hit them with drones and our own weapons. They were all killed quickly except for one,” Sneaky told CNN.
“He was injured and was going to die when we caught him. We talked to him and gave him water and his last cigarette. Then… well, he died,” he added.
Ukraine’s front with Russia is at least 1,300 km (810 miles) long. He goes back and forth as small villages come under Russian assault in the east of the country. Ukrainian officials now say Russia is planning a major assault in the coming weeks.
He may not come to Kherson, where the river is a formidable barrier against ground attacks from either direction. So, for now, the Russians are slamming the city day and night with seemingly random hammer blows.
Tatiana was in an underpass under the main street along one side of Freedom Square on her way to catch a bus. She had gone back to town because she couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.
“I came back because where I was living, I no longer had a job. And I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. And I came home because this is my home.
The Russians were bombing the city, she said, “To get revenge. Probably revenge, because they got away.
The revenge was so intense as she spoke that emergency fire and medic crews spoke to CNN from a bunker in a secret location. They said the shelling was too intense to launch aid missions. Their location is secret to prevent the Russians from targeting them.
Hitting Kherson like that is not totally insane. Russia’s blunt logic is that targeting civilians will undermine Ukrainian morale. That a daily regimen of this kind of misery will weaken Kyiv’s resolve, and even the resolve of its allies to help Ukraine sustain a long war.
A Russian ground offensive is more likely to take place along the front running east-west to the city of Zaporizhzhia, or in Donbass. But Ukraine must also protect recently liberated areas in Kherson or risk a Russian return – and that is absorbing troops.
Compared to Ukraine, Russia has troops to spare. This threw them into the “meat grinder” battle for Bakhmut in the east.
Ukraine says it urgently needs weapons that will offset Russia’s quantitative strategic advantage – like long-range missiles and fighter-bombers. Time is on the side of the Kremlin.
“Long-range weapons will change the course of war. We are sure of our victory, but then victory will be faster,” Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky said on Friday.
Anatoly is a pensioner from the Antonivka district of Kherson. The area provides river views. It is near the main bridge over the Dnieper. And it’s an easy target for Russian forces.
He came to get something to cover his windows blown out by the bombardments. He finds a plastic tarp over a broken window where the town hall has been ripped through and cuts it open with a pocket knife. Artillery and rockets pound in the background.
Enduring Russian (and Soviet) invasions and atrocities is in Kherson’s DNA. It was one of the first prizes in the conquest of the region by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century.
His adviser in this colonial expansion, Prince Grigory Potemkin was buried in St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson. When the Russians were pushed back last year, they took his bones with them. If this symbol of Russian imperial designs on Kherson really never returned to the city, there is no doubt that the parties would return to Freedom Square.