Residents of Kherson talk about the “silent terror’’ that defined their occupation, which was different than the devastating military siege that turned other Ukrainian cities – such as Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk – to rubble.
Russian forces entered Kherson in the early days of the war from nearby Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014, and soon after that, it was occupied.
Many people fled the city, but some just disappeared.
Khrystyna Yuldasheva, 18, works in a shop across the street from a building the Russian police used as a detention centre and where Ukrainian officials are investigating allegations of torture and abuse.
“There is no one here any more,” she told a woman who recently came by looking for her son.
Criminal and forensics investigators are rushing to document evidence of executions and torture, digging up bodies and coaxing traumatised witnesses to come forward. Already, case files are open on hundreds of suspected war crimes. Victims of torture haltingly recount their ordeals. De-mining teams are fanned out across the city and plying muddy fields in outlying former front-line villages, where wrecked military and civilian vehicles line battered roads.
In districts that were occupied earlier this year for little over a month by Russian troops outside Kyiv, investigators have found nearly 1,300 bodies of those killed during that time. In Kherson, which spent a full eight months under Russian control, that bleak harvest is likely to be far greater.
With bitter experience gained in places such as Bucha, the commuter town outside the capital where some of the worst of those early atrocities came to light, investigators are proceeding as carefully and methodically as possible.
“Our big concern is to find and preserve all the evidence that we need to develop war-crimes cases,” said Meri Akopyan, the country’s deputy interior minister. “There is a lot to be recorded. We have to be clear-minded and stay focused.”
Like law enforcement authorities and investigators, Akopyan said that she had already visited many scenes of suspected atrocities, including mass graves containing the bodies of civilians, some of whom apparently died under torture or were shot point-blank.
And in what might be the most insidious iteration of pain, Kherson’s people must now come to terms with the fact that some of their neighbours cooperated with the occupiers.
“I was so very disappointed,” one local man said of learning that a professor from his old university, a one-time mentor, had sided with the Russians. “Well, they can just f – off to Russia, those people who helped them,” spat Iryna Lebid, a 58-year-old nurse.
When Russian soldiers retreated on November 11 from Kherson, the only regional capital Moscow captured since the invasion began on February 24, they left a city devoid of basic infrastructure – water, electricity, transport or communications.
Still, signs of recovery already dot a city where the first vanguard of Ukrainian troops entered only last week. At hastily created mobile and internet hotspots, people weep into their mobile phones as they make contact with loved ones after months of isolation. Humanitarian aid is arriving by the truckload. In streets and squares, kids race up to Ukrainian troops, begging the soldiers to sign their Ukrainian flags.
A major obstacle to bringing residents back to Kherson, and to the rebuilding effort, will be clearing all of the mines that the Russians placed inside administrative offices and around critical infrastructure, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
“De-mining is needed here to bring life back,” said Mary Akopian, Ukraine’s deputy minister of internal affairs. She says Kherson has a bigger problem with mines than any of the other cities Ukraine has liberated from the Russians because it had been under occupation for the longest period of time.
She estimated it would take years to completely clear mines from the city of Kherson and surrounding areas. Already, 25 people have died clearing mines and other explosives left behind in Kherson, and dozens of civilians who hastened to return home were killed by mines.
Before retreating, Russian soldiers looted from stores and businesses – and even museums. The Ukrainian government estimates that 15,000 artefacts have been stolen from museums in the Kherson region and taken to nearby Crimea.
“There is, in fact, nothing there,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelensky’s office, wrote in his Telegram channel after a trip to the Kherson region. “The Russians killed and mined and robbed all cities and towns.”
The humiliating Russian retreat did not bring an end to the sounds of war in Kherson. About 70 per cent of the wider Kherson region is still in Russian hands. Explosions can regularly be heard in the city, although locals aren’t always sure whether its part of the mine-removal effort, or the sound of Russian and Ukrainian artillery.
The news is published by EMEA Tribune & SCMP