Late last year, Kherson residents greeted Ukraine’s armed forces as the city was liberated following more than eight months of Russian occupation. But today this port city still doesn’t live in peace, as Russian troops continue shelling it daily.
Before travelling there, locals, police and colleagues warned that Kherson was dangerous, but evvel I arrived, the chilling anticipation of that danger faded.
The Russians were pushed back across the river last year by Ukrainian forces. That is now where they stay, targeting civil infrastructure and residential areas, with mortar and artillery missiles.
My contacts, Roman and his wife Alina, were late to arrive as I got off the train, saying there had been shelling but that they would soon be on their way.
“They’ve been here, and they know what the strategic targets could be, but the munitions land on houses and civil infrastructure. Their aim is to repress the residents,” says Roman.
In the city and surrounding region, life has many, mostly unwritten rules. There are some hours of the day when shelling is more likely, locals say. Some areas are considered safer than others and in the late afternoon, it’s better not to leave home at all. The official curfew starts at 19:00.
Before the war started, Kherson was a city with a population of almost 300,000 yet now just 60,000 people live there.
Most residents who have remained in the city choose not to be outside unless absolutely necessary. But the morning market on Sunday is rather busy. There are mostly elderly locals including a woman named Olena whose wall calendars for 2023 sell like hotcakes.
The printing quality is simple but the calendars feel special. When the war first broke out, calendars and planners were empty following the beginning of the invasion but now people try to look to the future.
“The only positive thing during the occupation was that there was no shelling, the rest was terrifying. God gave us strength, and now the occupation is behind us, but we don’t know how long we must endure the current situation,” says local resident Natalia.
In different parts of the city, there are signs of recent attacks including on the city administration building, a park bench, the historic cinema, and residential buildings. Most businesses are closed, and one of the very few treats available in Kherson today is a coffee or tea in a cosy kiosk.
First responders, military, and sometimes locals queue for a drink but the central boulevard is empty.
Local driver Oleksandr brings us around but puts his foot on the gas to accelerate when we cross the bridge explaining: “it’s a dangerous bit”.
There are loud explosions as we arrive at Roman and Alina’s home in a neighbourhood facing the river where they live with their three children.
The occupation and the hardships of life in the frontline city haven’t made these people callous. They check if I am scared or cold or hungry. We drink a lot of coffee, and in this war-torn city, it is excellent.
The family has stayed in Kherson since the beginning of the war, endured the long months of occupation, and today they still do not plan to leave.
We rarely discuss the explosions we hear, yet sometimes locals talk about the type of munition that was used based on the different sounds.
Almost every night is loud due to the shelling.
The family says they have gotten used to it and that the kids sleep through it on the safest floor of the house. The buildings on the same street and even the neighbour’s house next door were hit. “That was the loudest night,” Alina says.
On a different night, they helped to extinguish a fire when another house in the neighbourhood was hit.
The next day, Alina gives me a little tour of the city centre. “I haven’t been outside for a walk like this for a year,” she says.
“We are really tired. We want it to be fine already. The city is dead. There is no place I can take my children out. There is no place to go for a walk. I am afraid to take them to the park, as there is shelling… Now, there is no life, everything is on autopilot.”
“We are only looking forward. We wait for our boys (the army) to take over the left bank too and people will return to Kherson. I don’t have friends here any more, everyone has left,” Alina says.
“The friends of my children have left. Some of our friends are in Poland, others in Germany. Everybody wants to return home, and we are waiting for them here,” she continues.
There is constant news about explosions in Kherson, from attacks at a busy bus stop to news of children losing their lives in the region.
And even as locals hope that there will soon be peace in the city, it’s not a safe place yet.