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'We Realized That We Still Had To Fight': Life In Kherson One Year After The End Of Russia's Occupation 

A Ukrainian servicewomen in Kherson cries as she lays flowers to commemorate those killed in the war as the city marks one year since Ukraine retook the city from occupying Russian forces on November 11, 2022.
A Ukrainian servicewomen in Kherson cries as she lays flowers to commemorate those killed in the war as the city marks one year since Ukraine retook the city from occupying Russian forces on November 11, 2022.

KHERSON, Ukraine -- Vyacheslav Havrylenko still remembers the euphoria he says that he felt when the Russian military retreated from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson a year ago on November 11.

Moscow quickly took control of Kherson following its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, and Havrylenko soon joined the local resistance against Russian forces where he worked alongside Ukrainian intelligence as the city and much of the wider region persisted under Russian occupation for eight months.

Two days before Russian troops ultimately retreated amid an eastward push by Kyiv’s forces, he recalls meeting with Ukrainian intelligence units on the outskirts of the city that were preparing to infiltrate Kherson.

“It was sometime after eight in the evening on November 9 and we met at this factory with the first [units] who were entering Kherson,” Havrylenko told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “Words can’t convey that [feeling]. When I saw them at the factory, we hugged and kissed.”

A year later, Kherson remains free, but the scars left by war and occupation are everywhere. More than 70 percent of Kherson's prewar population of about 300,000 has fled and Russian missiles and artillery still bombard the city from across the Dnieper River. Throughout the Kherson region, Russian attacks have killed more than 400 civilians, including 200 in the city, since liberation a year ago. Hundreds more have been injured, according to regional authorities.

In addition to the regular barrages, residents are still dealing with the toll of the occupation, with accusations -- and convictions -- of collaboration with Russian forces during that span becoming a feature of everyday life.

A local resident of Kherson passes by sandbags protecting a post office one year after Ukrainian troops liberated the city.
A local resident of Kherson passes by sandbags protecting a post office one year after Ukrainian troops liberated the city.

Kherson was the only regional administrative center of Ukraine that Russia was able to capture after the start of its full-scale invasion. Russia’s retreat from the city and much of the region --along with a panicked retreat from Kharkiv in the fall of 2022 --contributed to Moscow losing more than 40 percent of the territory it seized during its invasion.

Those breakthroughs raised hopes among Ukraine and its Western allies to believe that even more territory could soon be freed.

But a year since Kherson’s occupation ended, that initial elation has faded against hard battlefield realities.

Residents who spoke to Current Time said that they thought their troubles were behind them on November 11 last year, but the war still remains close.

The bigger picture also offers less cause for optimism among locals than a year ago. Ukraine’s second counteroffensive has stalled and so far failed to yield the breakthrough many hoped for, with Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, telling The Economist in November that the war has become totally bogged down in trenches as Ukrainian troops have advanced only 17 kilometers through heavily fortified and mined Russian defensive lines.

“There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” Zaluzhniy said during the interview with the British magazine.

Life Under Occupation

Despite the realities of a long war in Ukraine setting in for many residents, the liberation of Kherson a year ago still remains a cause for celebration.

Olha, who lived Bilozerka, a town outside of Kherson, says she still recalls the feeling she felt early in the morning of February 24, 2022 when Russia invaded, as explosions could be heard and seen near the airport as she got ready to go to work.

Olha, who asked to only be identified by her first name, said that, once it became clear what was happening, her first instinct was to become involved in defending her country. She initially tried to find a military enlistment office, but then decided to use her training as a nurse to treat the wounded.

Kostyantyn Kozak, who commanded a group of partisans that carried out attacks against Russian forces during the occupation, says that initially there were no regular units available to defend the city as Russian columns advanced toward Kherson.

“The SBU [Security Service of Ukraine], the police, the National Guard, the battalion, the detachment of border guards -- everyone left Kherson,” Kozak said.

Instead, Kozak gathered a group of fighters who used any means they could to defend the city, such as erecting barriers and making homemade explosives, but they had few firearms and ammunition at their disposal.

“There were 120 machine guns in total, and there was no way to get more anywhere,” he said.

Ukrainian Partisans Describe Their Fight Against Russian Forces In Kherson
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Havrylenko was ultimately arrested by Russian intelligence officers and taken to a prison where he was kept for a month along with other residents who resisted against Russian forces in the city. He says that, because he was older and was a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War, he wasn’t tortured, but that the screams of others were constant during his time in the basement prison.

“My age saved me,” Havrylenko said. “The [guards] called the first night when someone was taken to the detention center the ‘night of hospitality’ and they would torture them all night.”

'Torture Chamber': Kherson Residents Describe Brutal Treatment By Russian Occupiers
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For Mavic, a member of the resistance in Kherson who asked to be identified by his call sign, he recalls how residents continued to hold rallies in the city while it was occupied by Russian soldiers. Many locals, including himself, also secretly helped the Ukrainian military by sharing information about Russian troops and their activities.

Ordinary Ukrainians Again Face Off Against Russian Soldiers In Protests
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He says that this is how he got his military nickname. One day, early into the Russian occupation, he followed a group of Russian soldiers as they drove towards Chornobayivka, a village outside of Kherson where the city’s international airport is located. After alerting his Ukrainian military contacts, he was given a model Mavic drone made by the Chinese company DJI that was outfitted with a camera for surveillance to monitor the troops. He continued to use it throughout the occupation.

Mavic says that the months of occupation, which included abductions, detentions, torture, and looting, took a toll on the local population, with many residents becoming traumatized. He vividly remembers how many of his neighbors did not initially believe that the area had been liberated until they finally saw Ukrainian soldiers with their own eyes.

“You didn’t understand what was happening, you didn’t believe that it had actually happened,” he recalls. “For four or five days, everyone just walked around in a state of ecstasy.”

But that joy soon subsided as the realities of war set in again.

“When the Russians started shelling Kherson from the left bank [of the river] ... we realized that we still had to fight,” Mavic said.

'They Brought Them Borscht, They Drank With Them'

Since then, tensions in Kherson have sharpened due to the almost daily shelling by Russian troops entrenched on the opposite bank of the river. Some families are divided, with members living on different sides.

Fears persist over what life will be like as winter sets in, with a lack of electricity in many neighborhoods since the massive Kakhovka dam upstream was destroyed in June, causing catastrophic flooding.

Survivors Of Kakhovka Dam Breach Clean Up Devastating Flood Damage
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In addition to the physical and psychological toll of the war, suspicion still hangs over the city and its surrounding villages about who collaborated or cooperated with Russian forces amid the occupation.

When the Russian forces seized Kherson, they staged a referendum on whether the city and its region should join Russia, which Moscow said received resounding local backing, though Kyiv and Western nations dismissed the vote as a sham.

Serhiy, who was injured during early fighting, recalls returning to his home village of Nadezhdivka in the Kherson region and being alarmed at the sight of some of his fellow villagers being friendly with and welcoming Russian soldiers.

“They brought them borscht, they drank with them. Some brought them pies.” said Serhiy, who asked for his last name to be withheld.

Liberated Kherson Residents Talk About Resistance To The Russian Occupation
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Olena, who worked at the library of the Kherson Maritime Academy where local naval officers were trained, recalls the divisions and strife within the organization as some staff embraced the new Russian authorities in the city. The academy officially moved its headquarters to Odesa, which has stayed under Kyiv’s control, but a new Russian-backed leadership was appointed and invited instructors to return. Olena refused to do so.

She’s now returned to Kherson, but says that Russian troops took valuables from the academy and other buildings in the city when they left a year ago.

“They removed all the monuments in Kherson. They took everything,” Olena said. “They took out the entire local history museum, all the paintings.”

The SBU suspects that more than 500 locals from the Kherson region collaborated with Russian forces during the occupation, with charges ranging from performing administrative duties and providing business help for the wartime economy to giving food or material support to soldiers.

Other residents became police officers as part of new Russian-backed administrations in towns and cities.

“They walked around the village and illegally detained their own fellow countrymen, with whom they worked and lived next to their whole lives,” said Viktoria Shakula, the press officer at the SBU’s Main Directorate for the Kherson region. “They fabricated cases … there were cases where they stole people from the streets and from their homes just to demand a ransom.”

Nonetheless, there also seems to have been widespread resistance to the occupiers, as evidenced by frequent reports of suspected bomb attacks on Russian troops and collaborators.

“A lot of people fought here as partisans,” says Havrylenko. “A lot.”

Written by Reid Standish based on reporting by Andriy Kuzakov for Current Time in Kherson, Ukraine
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    Andriy Kuzakov

    Andriy Kuzakov is a military correspondent for Current Time who has covered conflicts and events in Crimea, the Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh, Liberia, Kosovo, and other locations. In peacetime, he has reported on international relations and politics from dozens of countries and covered summits and the UN General Assembly. He has been reporting from the front lines since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has been awarded Ukraine's Order of Merit (III).

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