Ukraine at War: Kherson — the trauma of the liberated City of Sun

Graphic by Aliza Kibel
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In a note accompanying her order, a client of a Ukrainian publishing company wrote, “I am now in occupied Kherson. I want to pre-order the book. [I am] attaching my address; if by the publication of the book we are still under occupation, I will find someone from the free region and change the address for the delivery.” After Kherson, a city in the southeast region of Ukraine, was liberated last week, the company posted the screenshot of the anonymous note on Facebook. Someone in the comments offered to pay for the book, but they were informed that the woman had already paid for it. Ukrainian publishers are again able to freely send books to Kherson. 

The U.S. has called Russia’s withdrawal from the central city of the Belgium-sized province an “extraordinary victory” for the Ukrainian army. Following what the international community generally considered to be a sham referendum, Kherson was among the four Ukrainian provinces that Russia claimed to have annexed. The occupier troops’ retreat from the city is generally viewed as a very promising turn for Ukraine. Yet some experts have different opinions on what exactly this apparent victory means for Ukraine, as some suspect that Russia’s forces may be maneuvering to regroup. While celebrating the turn of the war, however, we must acknowledge the damage the Russians left behind, as well as the aid Ukraine needs to recover from it. 

Before announcing their retreat from Kherson, the occupants had transformed the port city of the sun into a living hell. For eight months of occupation, Kherson had been without communication, access to food and other basic products, as Russia had blocked Ukrainian network providers and the effects of the war had caused skyrocketing inflation for basic products. The week before Russia’s retreat, there had been no running water and electricity. Locals say that life under the occupation was like “living in a concentration camp” not only due to the very limited access to food but also due to the lack of opportunities to connect with the outside world. 

Arguably, the most traumatic aspect of Russian control was the constant risk of becoming another victim as the Russians kidnapped, tortured and killed many Ukrainian civilians, sometimes even in front of their children. They also refused to provide medication, even for cancer patients, unless they had a Russian passport. With each liberated area, we learn many more stories about people disappearing from the streets and soon might be discovering more mass graves without names or dates.

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One might think that after the official decision to leave Kherson, Russians would stop committing crimes and simply leave. However, between Wednesday, when the order to retreat was made, and Friday, the day Ukrainian troops entered the city, the occupants blew up the Antonivsky Bridge and the Kakhovka dam’s bridge. They took valuables from the archives of the Kherson Oblast Library. In total, Russians also stole and shipped a total of 15,000 paintings from Kherson Oblast to Simferopol, another area under occupation. Before they left, Russian occupiers had also put up billboards in Kherson with messages such as, “Russia is here forever!” in an attempt to demoralize local residents.

Following Russia’s defeat, Ukrainians started putting up the country’s flags even before Ukrainian troops entered the city of Kherson on Friday. Some of the flags were hidden in the ground of backyards; owning national symbols of Ukraine is enough of a reason for Russians to kill. 

“[Russians] everywhere have the same goal: to humiliate people as much as possible. But we will restore everything, believe me,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. The nation of people who pre-order books from temporarily occupied regions and bury flags to protect it from the enemy agree with him.

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