Interviews by The Washington Post with people who live in Kherson, who were recently evacuated or who are in regular contact with locals, painted a grim picture of a prolonged life under occupation, in an area that marked the first large land seizure from this war by Russia. More than 100 days have passed since Russian tanks entered the region from the neighboring Crimean peninsula, which Moscow illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.
Shops and pharmacies have been closed during this time, and people have no access to money until their local Ukrainian banks and ATMs are working. There are markets with goods being sold from car trunks – a scene one woman compared to the days after the fall of the Soviet Union. Supplies of drugs such as insulin and saline, which are used in everything from cleaning wounds to storing contact lenses, are extremely low, they and others said.
“Very many people are in deep depression or suffering from nervous breakdowns,” said the woman, who asked to be identified as “Tatyana” for security reasons as she continues to reside in Kherson.
“And taking pills or a shot of vodka doesn’t help,” she said. “There’s a feeling of uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just waiting and unequivocally believing it will get better and we’re really looking forward to it.
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Ukrainian troops are stationed just 20 miles away on a front line that has barely moved since the start of the war but is heating up after a series of successful counter-offensive operations by Kyiv forces. While Ukraine is steadily losing ground in the eastern Donbass region, where the fiercest fighting is concentrated in the city of Severodonetsk, gains in the Kherson region are the rare good news these days.
The Ukrainian army is said to have advanced this month towards the strategic settlement of Davydiv Brid, located along a main highway. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said a counteroffensive on Davydiv Brid could hamper Russia’s ability to sustain units north of there, where it also faces Ukrainian counter-offensives.
“Kherson is critical ground because it is the only region in Ukraine where Russian forces hold ground on the western bank of the Dnipro River,” analysts said. “If Russia is able to maintain a strong position in Kherson when the fighting stops, it will be in a very strong position to launch a future invasion. If Ukraine regains Kherson, on the other hand, Ukraine will be in a much stronger position to defend against a future Russian attack.
The area has another significance for Moscow. The Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region includes the port city of Kherson, which had a population of about 300,000 before the war, and the 250-mile-long North Crimean Canal connecting Crimea to the river. The canal was Crimea’s main source of water until Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014 and Ukraine hastily built a dam to block the canal’s flow. The resulting water shortage in Crimea has been a point of tension between Russia and Ukraine for eight years.
Control of Kherson also gives the Russians a key “land bridge” from their military bases in Crimea, along the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov in Ukraine, and to mainland Russia.
Oleksandr Vilkul, head of Ukraine’s military administration in Kryvyi Rih, said the Russian army is not allowing residents of Kherson to leave the occupied area and move around. north towards Kryvyi Rih. Some people still manage on secondary roads, but it is a perilous road. Others are trying to exit northeast towards Zaporizhzhia, a journey that would typically take five hours but can now stretch to a week due to blockages at checkpoints. There are often bombings along the route which also cause delays.
“A month and a half ago, 15 settlements were liberated in the region, and now there are 25 villages liberated,” Vilkul said. “But there are counterattacks from our side, and there are also counterattacks from their side.”
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Tatyana said she rarely leaves her house because the sounds of explosions have become louder and more frequent lately. If she goes out, it is because she is desperately looking for bread and vegetables, foods that are still easily available in the agricultural region. She tries to do her shopping at 10 a.m., when it’s usually quieter. Otherwise, “we live in constant fear,” she said.
“I cry sometimes,” she says. “You can’t, for example, mark your birthday the way you want, or even just go out for a weekend walk with friends.”
There are also signs of resistance from within the occupation – an explosion this week at a cafe near the headquarters of the new government in Moscow. Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev, who remained in the city but no longer has full governmental authority under the Russians, said Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, agents are driving cars with license plates. Ukrainian registrations and walk around in civilian clothes, listening to the conversations of the inhabitants. . Many pro-Ukrainian activists disappeared, he said along with others, adding to fear among the population.
To make matters worse, there is a media blackout due to lack of cell phone and internet service over the past week, he said. Residents of Kherson can connect to the Crimean network provider, but it is blocked by Ukrainian news sites. This means that the only information accessible for the most part is Russian state media – a propaganda vehicle for the Kremlin that heavily censors war information.
Vladislav Dyachenko, 38, who left Kherson last month, said that although people are in desperate need of the humanitarian aid offered by the new authorities installed by Russia, some are reluctant to provide the passport information needed for the receive. They fear their identity could be used to tamper with the results in the event of a referendum on joining Russia, Dyachenko said.
“People there hate, hate, hate” Russians and their elected officials, said Hennadiy Lahuta, the governor of the Kherson region, which is now outside the occupied territory.
“They absolutely despise them,” he said.
Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Paul Sonne and Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv contributed to this report.
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