In a city overflowing with fear, there is one part of the city considered deadlier than any other: the river.
Russian shells every day navigate the muddy gray waters and explode somewhere in the maze of buildings and small houses beyond. The Dnipro River, which flows languidly around the city of Kherson, has become the front line. People hide behind trees and watch carefully around buildings, squinting at the water. This is where you can see with the naked eye the territory occupied by Russia and where the snipers are hiding.
“Be careful,” warned a woman standing by the river on Monday afternoon. “The Russians are not far away.”
On Sunday afternoon, an elderly woman was killed as she tried to flee Russian-occupied territory. She was crossing the river in a small boat with her husband, Ukrainian authorities said, when Russian troops opened fire on her with a machine gun. It was darker news in a city that over the past three weeks has changed dramatically – for the worse.
It’s the same place that vibrated with joy in mid-November after Ukrainian forces liberated it, repelling Russian troops and handing Vladimir Putin’s army one of its most embarrassing defeats.
Now Kherson is abandoned. It is cold. People here say they are alone. And the streets are covered in ice.
The main square that hosted so many post-liberation celebrations — imagine people hugging, kissing, taking selfies with grizzled soldiers and happily waving blue and yellow Ukrainian flags — is empty except of a few black dogs crossing it. The streets that feed it are also empty. A few people bundled up in dark jackets descend them, lonely figures under a tombstone gray sky.
The lights are off on the main street. The sooty smell of log fires wafts through the thin winter air. Kherson’s power grid, like so many other Ukrainian cities, has been relentlessly pounded by Russian missiles, an attempt to bring this country to its knees, and people are burning logs to heat their homes.
Almost all stores are closed. One of the few that remained open on Monday advertised everything at 50% off. Inside, Natasha Sekeresh, the shopkeeper, leaned sadly against the counter.
“In other parts of the world, people are starting to celebrate the holidays,” she said. “Here, there is nothing to rejoice about.”
She listed the misfortunes: No electricity. No running water. No heat. She doesn’t have any customers either. Soon, she says, she won’t have a job.
Her boss, the shop owner, plans to close as soon as the remaining items – the handful of plastic lighters, the half-full box of Picnic candy bars, the small pyramid of cans of evaporated milk and a few other things – are sold. .
“So what about me?” she asked.
As she spoke, a man wrapped in a huge parka appeared.
“Need some bread? ” He asked. He worked in a store across the street.
“No,” she said. “I have no one to sell it to.”
“Me neither,” he said. “This town is empty.
Many people left right after the liberation. Others have since evacuated. Russian shelling has intensified, with 170 attacks in the past two weeks. The Russians are detonating mortars, rockets, artillery and even tank fire against civilians.
“This is our great pain,” said Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of Kherson’s military administration. The Russians are gone, he said, but “they keep taking lives.”
The Ukrainian army tries to push them back further to put Kherson out of artillery range. It has been occupied by Russian troops for more than eight months but it will not be fully liberated, officials say, until the territory around Kherson is also liberated.
Near the main square, two 11-year-old boys played a game where they sprinted across a patch of ice and then slid as far as they could. Their eyes shone in the cold. It dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday. It was the first day of snow.
“I haven’t been in a classroom for three years,” said Liosha, 11, counting free time since the Covid pandemic and then the war. “Actually, I want to be in school.”
He and his buddy Kyryl kill time by hanging around the square, waiting to shake hands with the soldiers and maybe get a Velcro military patch off them.
“We tried to talk to the Russians,” Liosha said, “but they didn’t really interact with us. But these soldiers” – he nodded to a squad of Ukrainians marching past with their assault rifles – “they’re cool.
Almost every day since liberation another person here has been killed. Russian troops often fire into the city at night, when people are sleeping. Here, people feel particularly vulnerable because there aren’t many bomb shelters or cellars like in most Ukrainian cities, remnants of the Cold War. The water table is too high to dig them.
“We have no place to hide,” said Olena Yermolenko, who lives by the river.
If there were more people, the number of victims of the bombings would surely be higher. But in a city with a prewar population of around 300,000, there may be a few thousand people left downtown.
The other day a shell hit a bank building so close to me, while I was waiting for a bowl of soup in a cafe across the street, that I felt the wave of shock explode in my ears. For several seconds after, I heard a strange ringing. Then silence.
On Sunday afternoon, in Seniavyna Street, a shell hit a 10-storey building. Tetiana Roshchyna was in her kitchen making meatball soup. The explosion shook the whole block. The windows exploded, creating a blizzard of glass.
“You have to understand that this is a purely residential area,” she said. “No military. No factories. Just apartments.
Kherson was once a major industrial center, home to one of Ukraine’s largest ports, which shipped steel and grain to the world. Now the main port building is covered in graffiti. Its windows are broken. Snow blows inside.
“I can’t even describe to you what it’s like to go through this,” she said. “It’s like a really bad dream.”
Anatoliy Makarenko, a neighbor, said that when he looked at the damaged buildings, he wanted to “grab an automatic weapon” and fight the Russians himself.
He is 75 years old.
On Monday, a team of three women who worked for the local government waited to help people trying to cross the river and return to Kherson. Military officials announced over the weekend that they were allowing people to use the river to escape; they had closed the access after the liberation to make sure that the Russians did not try to sneak in there.
Officials said perhaps a few hundred people, mostly pensioners, live on the swampy islands opposite Kherson in small summer houses. Ukrainians call it a “grey zone”, a space between warring armies.
But as of Monday afternoon, officials said, none of the people in that gray area had ventured onto the water. In fact, no one had tried to cross, except the only couple who lived further away, in a town still held by the Russians, and whose boat had been shot down.
“No one is coming,” said one of the women waiting for arrivals. “They are too scared.”
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed report.