Sunday marks exactly one month since Russian troops withdrew from Kherson and its surroundings after an eight-month occupation, sparking jubilation across Ukraine. But life in the southern city is still very far from normal.
The departing Russians left all sorts of unpleasant surprises behind them, and their artillery continued to strike the city from new entrenched positions on the other side of the Dnieper. The regional administration said on Saturday that shelling last month left 41 dead, including a child, in Kherson, and 96 hospitalized.
Residents’ access to electricity comes and goes, although water is largely connected and indoor heating has only been restored very recently – and only in about 70-80% of the city – after that the Russians blew up a giant heating plant last month. which served much of the city.
For authorities and citizens, sifting through the myriad headaches and dangers left behind by the Russians, and preparing for new ones, is a daily chore.
On Friday alone, according to the local affiliate of the public broadcaster Suspilne, Russian forces shelled the area 68 times with mortar, artillery, tank and rocket fire. Meanwhile, over the past month, a total of 5,500 people have taken evacuation trains and work crews cleared 190 kilometers (115 miles) of road, Suspilne reported.
When aid trucks arrived a month ago, war-weary and desperate residents flocked to the central Svoboda (Freedom) square for food and supplies. But after a Russian strike in the square as a line of people queued to enter a bank in late November, such large gatherings have become less common and aid is being distributed from smaller, more discreet distribution points. .
Regional officials say around 80% of Kherson’s pre-war population of around 320,000 fled after the Russians arrived, days after their invasion began on February 24. . Those who remain mostly stay indoors as they are reluctant to make forays into the streets.
“Life is getting back to normal, but there is a lot of shelling,” said Valentyna Kytaiska, 56, who lives in the nearby village of Chornobaivka. She lamented the “Bam! Bam!” and the troubling uncertainty about where Russian ordnance might land.
Normal is a relative term for a country at war. It’s unclear whether what Russia insists on calling a “special military operation” will end in days, weeks, months or even years.
In the meantime, painstaking efforts are being made to establish a better sense of normalcy, such as cleaning up the mess and mines left behind by the Russians, from a harsh winter.
“The difficulties are very simple, it’s the weather conditions,” said a member of the military demining squad, which goes by the nom de guerre Tekhnik. He said some of their equipment just doesn’t work in freezing conditions “because the ground is frozen like concrete.”
Deploying additional teams could help ease the heavy workload, he said. “To give you an idea, during the month of our work, we found and cleared several tons of mines,” Tekhnik said, adding that they were only focusing on about 10 square kilometers (about 4 square miles).
In the Beryslavskyi district of Kherson, a main road was blocked by a sign reading “Mines Ahead” and redirecting passers-by to a smaller road. In fact, it was this secondary road that was mined and cost the lives of military deminers. A few weeks later, four policemen were also killed there, including the police chief of the northern city of Chernihiv, who had come to help Kherson regain his footing.
The general state of disrepair of the weather-beaten roads helped the outgoing Russians conceal their deadly traps: the potholes, some covered in dirt, provided a convenient place to lay mines. Sometimes the Russians cut the asphalt to make holes themselves.
Demining teams are slowly going from house to house to ensure that owners or former residents can return safely. Experts say a single house can take up to three days to clean.
A crew found a hand grenade in a house, stuffed into a washing machine – the pin placed in such a way that opening the detergent drawer would trigger an explosion.
The town’s main police station, where detainees were allegedly tortured, is packed with explosives. When the demining teams tried to clear their way there, part of the building exploded – so they put the project aside for the time being.
Longer-term questions remain: Kherson is in an agricultural region that produces crops as diverse as wheat, tomatoes and watermelon – a regional symbol. The fields are so heavily mined that around 30% of the region’s arable land is unlikely to be planted in the spring, said Technik the deminer. A quick glance reveals the tops of anti-tank mines jutting out into the fields.
Even so, after a night of shelling from Friday night to Saturday, Kherson resident Oleksandr Chebotariov said life had been even worse under the Russians for himself, his wife and 3-year-old daughter.
“It’s easier to breathe now,” the 35-year-old radiologist said, adding, “If the beatings don’t stop before New Years, I’m going on vacation.”
Keaten reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Evgeniy Maloletka from Kherson, Ukraine contributed to this report.
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