USCC team reports from Kherson

“Russians built three defense lines on the right bank of the Dnipro, though it didn’t save them. They fled leaving all these fortifications and Kherson, which they promised to protect until their last mobilized soldier” – Serhii Kuzan, USCC Chairman in his interview to the BBC:Ukraine.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, with fierce fights Russian army managed to seize only one regional center in the south of Ukraine – Kherson.

During the occupation, the city experienced all the essence of the ‘Russian world’. They tried to keep Kherson in a Russian information bubble filled with total propaganda. Hundreds of war crimes cases took place there: murders, abductions, assaults, tortures, and deportations. Residents were massively deported, and the occupiers moved into the abandoned buildings. With the massive resettlement of Ukrainians to different Russian regions, Kremlin is trying to fix the record population decline (1.4 million people in 2021) and, as a result, labor shortages, which were a matter of complaint by Putin himself. Only in Kherson, four torture chambers were detected and seven places for arbitrary detention of people they could not publicly denounce due to the lack of evidence.     

To liberate the city from the occupation, the Ukrainian command, unlike the Russian one, refused the direct assault to avoid heavy losses. Instead, for nine months, the Ukrainian army continued to methodically strike logistical ways, bridges, and crossings of the Russian army, slowly moving forward. Eventually, to avoid the catastrophe which befell russian units in Kharkiv region, they had to flee to the left bank of the Dnipro.

Leaving the city, they demolished the city’s energy system and took out everything that had value from the state and private enterprises. Occupiers were miningbuildings, household objects, and even bodies. After the liberation of the city, around 2500 explosive objects were liquidated.

Investigators documented over 400 war crimes Russia will have to respond to in the international courts.

How liberated Kherson lives? What is the mood of the locals? Did liberation take them by surprise? The Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center team visited Kherson right after the liberation by Ukrainian army.

Representatives of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center at the entrance to just liberated Kherson

“We knew we are not forgotten”

Despite many unexploded mines and missiles from multiple launch rocket systems on the way to Kherson, life in the city is getting better. The eye is catching many people enveloped in Ukrainian flags in the background of half-peeled billboards reading “Russia is forever here” left by occupiers.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine units continue entering the city to implement stabilization matters, and the authorities and objects of social infrastructure restore their work. Such large state enterprises as PrivatBank, Oschadbank and Ukrposhtaresumed their work in the city.

There are thousands of locals on Freedom Square in front of the Kherson Oblast Military Administration all the time. Khersonians keep welcoming the military, get humanitarian aid, connect to the Ukrainian cell service and throw away Russian SIM cards (Ukrainian cell operators resumed their work in Kherson within two days). Many try to find their close ones who disappeared during the Russian occupation or evacuated before the city’s seizure.

Khersonians on Freedom Square in front of Kherson Oblast Military Administration

“We knew we are not forgotten” – says Viktoriia (name was changed), a local citizen. Viktoriia and her daughter ask the Ukrainian military to sign the flag her family has been hiding throughout the occupation. “Russians managed to block Ukrainian cell connection totally, so we were forced to buy Russian SIM cards. However, they could not completely block the satellite signal of Ukrainian television. We carefully followed the news, though it was hard to believe that Kherson would be liberated. You cannot imagine our joy when Ukrainian units entered the city”.

Local “Viktoriia” with her daughter

“Kherson didn’t give up during the whole period of occupation.”

“Detention, tortures, and murders of the locals by Russians became the norm,” says 17 years old Khersonian Liubov. She wears a vyshyvanka. “The whole Ukraine saw how Khersonians with bare hands were stopping Russian military equipment on the Freedom square. Many Khersonians paid a high price for that. Pre-trial detention facilities turned into torture chambers. It was the hardest on women, who went through gang rape. Nevertheless, Kherson didn’t give up during the whole period of occupation: refusal from russian documents, payments, participation in so-called referendum, sabotage of the occupying authorities not to mention work for Ukrainian intelligence – this is the everyday resistance by Khersonians”.

17 years old Khersonian Liubov shares about the Russian war crimes

The Resistance Movement in Kherson region became legendary. Partisans were drawing graffiti, gluing cards, tying yellow ribbons, and transmitting information to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. To honor the activity of those who withstand the invader during the occupation, they launched a flash mob in Ukraine called “The Yellow Ribbon.”

City on the Line of Fire

Besides locals, the USCC team also spoke to the military liberating the city. The Ukrainian defenders emphasize that the fight for Kherson is not over, as the city is on the line of fire. Russians, to avoid defeat like in the Kharkiv region, were carefully preparing for the escape.

First, the Russian command was forcing locals to move to the left bank of Dnipro. Using this “human shield,” the occupiers took out equipment, weapon, and documents three weeks before the liberation of the city. The Ukrainian army was precisely striking the retreating russians, but could not attack more heavily to avoid civilian losses.

Secondly, the enemy was constantly preparing positions on the left bank of the Kherson region, building up deeply echeloned defense with concrete fortifications, tranches, and anti-tank barriers.   

Thirdly, the city is still achievable for the Russian artillery, which is constantly terrorizing Kherson with massive attacks.

The Antonivskyi Bridge, blown up as russian forces were retreating from Kherson and The USSC representatives with the Ukrainian military

At the same time, there is a strong fighting spirit in the air in Kherson. In all corners of the city, one can hear the sound of Ukrainian artillery at work, which prevents Russians from the full-fledged deployment on the left bank. Despite the interruption in the connection, electricity, and water supply in the city, Khersonians are sure that the worst is behind them. Abandoned by Russians, the positions at the entrance to Kherson, which they promised to keep until the end, is another proof that sooner or later, the whole Kherson region and Ukraine will be liberated from the Russian occupation.

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