‘Winter will be very tough’: Russian shelling drives Ukrainians from liberated Kherson

Residents vow to return to southern city that endured nine-month occupation

Eighty-three years after she was born on the eve of the second World War, which would claim her father’s life and land her brother in a German concentration camp, another conflict has driven Svitlana Slabunova from her home as Russia tries to bomb Ukraine into submission.

Slabunova and her daughter, Laura Vdovichenko, endured nine months of occupation in Kherson, but fled with many other residents in recent days as Russia rained shellfire onto the southern city from across the Dnipro river, knocking out power and water supplies as freezing winter weather set in.

“I hate war,” Slabunova says in the Lviv apartment of her granddaughter, Vika Agarkova, who moved to western Ukraine from the eastern city of Kharkiv when the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion in February.

“I still remember the war with the Germans, and at this age I have to face another war… Now I’m old and unwell, and we don’t know what awaits us.”

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The three women were born and lived most of their lives in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Slabunova and Vdovichenko had moved to Kherson in 2012, but Agarkova left only after Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula.

Russian troops moving north from Crimea occupied Kherson just a few days into this year’s invasion, immediately setting up checkpoints to stop and question local residents and starting house-to-house searches for Ukrainian officials, current or former members of the police and military, and anyone identified as a potential impediment to Kremlin rule.

“Every day was dangerous,” says Vdovichenko (62).

“You didn’t know how [the Russian troops] would look at you, what mood they would be in…They checked people all the time, asked questions, demanded documents, went into people’s houses.”

Since Ukraine retook Kherson city and much of the region last month, its prosecutors say they have discovered several sites where Russians detained, beat and electrocuted local residents, and allegations of abductions, torture and executions are being investigated.

“Before the war I worked as a security guard in Kherson,” says Serhiy Tertus (35), who has also moved to Lviv after living through the occupation.

“My friend was the head of security at a supermarket. He’s a former soldier, so the Russians went in there in masks, grabbed him and put a bag over his head and took him to a basement. They beat him for a week to get information about the military. Finally they let him go, but his ribs were broken and he spent half a month in hospital recovering,” he adds.

“There were beatings and kidnappings, women were raped and old people were abused. They could do what they liked: they might rip up your Ukrainian passport to try to force you to get a Russian one, or go into your house and take anything – a washing machine, a fridge, whatever they wanted.”

The Russians blocked Ukrainian media and telecoms providers, routed mobile phone and internet traffic through Russia, and introduced their rouble currency to replace the hryvnia, as visiting Moscow officials pledged that Kherson would be under Kremlin control “forever”.

Yet only weeks after sham referendums and Kremlin declarations of sovereignty over Kherson and three other partly occupied provinces, Ukrainian forces were advancing towards Kherson city behind strikes from powerful western-supplied artillery that destroyed Russia’s command posts, arms depots and fuel stores in the region.

“We never believed that Kherson was lost,” says Vdovichenko.

“We were lucky that we had satellite television, so could still watch Ukrainian programmes. Most people didn’t have that, because the Russians switched everything over to their channels. So we could see the full picture of what was happening and shared the news with other people,” she adds.

“We heard explosions day and night, so we knew our troops were coming and we were sure they would liberate us…They hit the Russians very precisely, and local people helped with targeting. So many people in Kherson have sons and brothers and husbands in Ukraine’s army and let them know where the Russians were located.”

When Ukrainian troops entered Kherson a month ago, they were greeted by crowds of local residents waving banners in the nation’s yellow and blue colours, which had been kept hidden during the long months of occupation.

“It was like a party in our district for three days. People came out to feed the soldiers, to offer them a place to get a shower, to show them vacant houses where they could stay and to find stoves and firewood for them,” says Tertus.

He also recalls how the Russians, while filling stolen cars with looted booty during the final days of their occupation, also destroyed or damaged much of Kherson’s infrastructure, including the gas, electricity and water networks and towers for mobile and television signals.

It seems they were already preparing to make life intolerable for many of Kherson’s residents as winter took hold, and since retreating to the eastern bank of the Dnipro they have pounded the city and surrounding area with shells, killing and injuring dozens of people and repeatedly knocking out power and water supplies in freezing temperatures.

“After we were liberated, the Russians started throwing everything at us,” says Vdovichenko.

“They’re shelling residential areas and it’s very dangerous there. I got sick from all of this, I have nerve problems and need an operation on my leg. So Vika told me to come to Lviv, because in Kherson lots of hospitals have had to close, many medics have left and there is often no gas or light of phone connection,” she explains.

“We were lucky, because we cut down a big tree and had firewood to burn in our house. But people living in apartment blocks in Kherson won’t be able to cook or stay warm. And when the water went off some people even started taking it from the river,” she adds.

“Winter will be very tough ... but things will get better and we’ll go back when we can.”

Just as Russia’s shelling of Kherson looks like revenge against a city that rejected and finally expelled it, so its massive bombardment of Ukraine’s national grid and other civilian infrastructure has intensified as its troops have suffered defeats on the battlefield.

Ukraine says about 40 per cent of its power network has been destroyed in several waves of cruise missile attacks, causing blackouts across the country including as far west as Lviv, though until now, light, heat and water have stayed on in Agarkova’s apartment.

Tertus is less fortunate: he is living with his wife – who is recovering from cancer – and their three children and two other relatives in temporary housing that was hastily assembled for displaced people in Lviv; but the portacabin-like structures are not insulated for winter, his has only four beds for its seven residents, and power cuts are frequent.

“The children are very closed now, they have been hurt psychologically by the occupation,” he says.

“Our youngest, Alexandra, is seven, and she has just started school here in Lviv. But whenever she sees a soldier she just bursts into tears. She’s very afraid,” he explains.

“The children understand that the enemy has been chased away from Kherson and they want to go home. They’re pestering their mum to go back, and we’re telling them to wait a bit. But we will go back when it’s safer – Kherson is our hometown and we all miss it.”

Agarkova never lived in Kherson and says she has no desire to return to Kharkiv, which is a mere 35km from the Russian border: “It was my second evacuation. I had to leave Crimea because of occupation and then Kharkiv was attacked too – I just don’t want to live near Russia again.”

Her biggest dream is to return to a liberated Crimea, where her grandmother grew up and married a Soviet serviceman when, as Slabunova puts it, “Ukraine and Russia were together,” and he was stationed at an airbase now used by Russia’s occupying forces.

“We were supposed to be brothers, Ukrainians and Russians, but they turned out to be our enemies,” Slabunova says. “No one ever thought such a thing could happen.”