In liberated Kherson, Ukrainians are glimpsing victory after dark days | Nataliya Gumenyuk

As I report on the aftermath of Russian occupation, there is a new sense that what once seemed impossible can be achieved

  • Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist and author

At Liberty Square in Kherson, residents gather, trying to find wifi near the temporary wireless internet towers and charging points. There is limited phone connection and no internet to read the news and find out what is going on outside this recently liberated region. During their withdrawal after nine months of occupation, Russian forces blew up the TV tower and the power grid, so there is no electricity to charge devices either.

Yet the mood is celebratory in the square today, as locals wave Ukrainian flags and banners marking the liberation. It has been seven days since Ukrainian troops re-entered the city, but Ukrainian soldiers, police, social services, foreign reporters and anyone who has arrived from outside the city are still greeted warmly.

“I am so happy to be at home,” says one woman. “Home? Are you not from Kherson?” I ask. “At home means in Ukraine,” she says, and hugs me.

Sasha, 13, has come with her father, Viktor, to charge their phones. She has spent the last few days with her classmates from school waving at the military cars passing by. I am struck by her definition of freedom: “When the Russians were here, we had to walk with our heads down, not looking in front of us,” she says. “Now we are back in Ukraine we can raise our heads up and feel we’re free.” Her father nods.

Another woman, Halnya, recalls the Russian occupation. “At checkpoints the Russians would ask us: ‘Why are you in a bad mood?’. How should I have answered them? What do you say to people who go on to buses with machine guns – that if they were not here, our lives would be better?”

About 280,000 people lived here in Kherson – the regional capital, now back in Ukrainian control – before the Russians came. According to the Office of the President, 80,000 people remain.

“I was shocked when I saw so many people on the streets, I didn’t know so many residents stayed,” says Svitlana, who is 75. “There were always just us pensioners on the streets, as the youngsters were afraid to be captured and detained, and stayed inside. Now they’re all back.” Many people I meet say that this is the first time since February that they have come into town; they were too afraid to come while the Russians were here.

I have been reporting on the occupation of the Donbas and Crimea, where activists, journalists and others were forced to flee under the threat of arrest or detention. When the Russians arrived in Kherson, residents came to the streets to peacefully protest against the invasion. At one point they outnumbered the Russian soldiers. Moscow sent riot police to crack down on the dissent with force. Since then hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been detained in southern Ukraine. Not being an open Russian supporter was enough cause to be suspected and questioned. Ukrainian and international human rights organisations were registering numerous human rights violations.

People attend an aid supply distribution in Kherson on Thursday.
People at an aid supply distribution in Kherson, Ukraine, 17 November 2022. Photograph: Bülent Kılıç/AFP/Getty Images

My work with the Reckoning Project, which documents war crimes, has involved recording dozens of in-depth testimonies of detentions, tortures and even executions of people in southern Ukraine. Two of our own researchers come from the area. One fled as she was on the Russian death list. The second, the investigative reporter Oleh Baturin, from Kakhovka (an area that remains under occupation) was kidnapped, tortured, beaten and spent eight days in detention in March.

In this early stage of the occupation, there was a feeling in much of the international press and at security conferences that Kherson was lost. Friends and relatives in the area told us how they felt forgotten and Russian propaganda was reinforcing this message on the ground. It took months for the Ukrainian government to persuade the western alliance that with more and more precise weapons there was a chance that they could take back the area – which, due to its proximity to Crimea, is one Moscow was clearly focused on.

Kherson has given Ukrainians a glimpse of what victory looks like, and a sense that things previously considered impossible can be done. It is this, perhaps, that is driving the jubilant mood in the area. Previously, when arriving in liberated areas, the joy was short-lived, as people worried about what would be uncovered – the mass graves, the torture chambers, and residents’ exhaustion with the lack of electricity and running water. In Kherson, however, people are approaching reporters saying: “We’ll cope with this, it’s temporary, we are not scared.” Their attitude makes the “with Russia forever” billboards around the town look even more ridiculous.

Now, the rebuilding starts. Access to the town is still restricted as rescue workers and the emergency services uncover hidden mines. As bridges around the city were blown up, the only way for journalists to get in is with a military convoy. Colleagues and friends have asked me if I could take medicine from Kyiv to their sick relatives there.

Still, after months of the city being completely unreachable, even seemingly small pieces of news feel huge. When the mobile connection was restored in one town, I thought of my friend who can finally speak to her parents. When I see a truck delivering food, I think of a colleague who was worried about how her elderly mother was going to get enough food during the occupation. Passing by a bus in ruins, I wonder whether this was the place where a volunteer driving evacuated women and children out of the area back in May was killed by a sniper. I interviewed a witness to the incident and a sign tells me that this was the place. I hear stories from friends with relatives in the area of Chechens taking over their apartments, of neighbours robbed and threatened. And these are just the people I know.

After reporting on the war for so long, the warmth of the people of Kherson is overwhelming. “We have been waiting for it. We can breathe freely. What else can I say? Glory to the Ukrainian armed forces. Glory to Ukraine,” I am told. And I know they mean every single word.

  • Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist specialising in foreign affairs and conflict reporting, and author of Lost Island: Tales from the Occupied Crimea


Nataliya Gumenyuk

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