Kherson residents celebrate liberation and describe trauma of occupation

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
People gathered in Kherson’s city center on Saturday after Ukrainian forces retook the southern city from Russian forces.

KHERSON, Ukraine – After more than eight months of occupation, this weary city pulsed with joy.

Scores of people flooded to Kherson’s central square on Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the last Russian soldiers fled, surrendering this regional capital in a stunning setback to President Vladimir Putin’s war goals. A boombox blared techno music. Couples kissed and strangers hugged. Young men stood on top of cars, waving Ukrainian flags.

“We are so happy, despite all our struggles,” said Olga Malakh, 56, who was near tears as she stood in the central square. “We have lived through so much, but we will rebuild.”

But for others here, their struggles were too much to set aside, and it was clear many were just beginning to deal with the trauma, including the deaths and disappearances of loved ones.

Lyubov Obozna’s 28-year-old son, Dmytro, had been snatched by Russian security agents on Aug. 3 in front of his two young children. More than three months later, she still doesn’t know his whereabouts though she believes he is alive.

Amid the sea of happiness around her, Obozna, 61, stood ashen-faced, holding her six-year-old grandson’s hand. “We don’t know where he is,” she said.

Again and again, people stepped out of the celebrating crowd to say that a loved one was missing, or that they themselves had been detained, interrogated, tortured.

After weeks of silence from Kherson, where the occupying Russian forces had cut off almost all communication, people were now starting to tell their stories. And like in many other liberated towns and cities before this one – Bucha, Izyum, Lyman – the early signs were ominous.

Many people spoke of arbitrary searches, arrests, torture, and disappearances.

As a few dozen people danced in a circle, Proskoviya Stepanova, 55, stood anxiously to the side.

Her son-in-law, a police officer named Vadim Valereyovich Barinov, 31, has been missing since March 28.

Stepanova had gone to the Russian-installed military administration where they had said not to worry, he would be questioned and let go. She had gone to the detention center, but they said they had no one by that name. Finally, she had gone to the cemetery, where she could smell what she believed were bodies being burned. “I really hope he is alive,” she said.

Others described occupation as a nightmare that last for months.

“Life under occupation was horrible,” said Tetiana Fomina, 58. “It was like living in a concentration camp. We were never free. The Russians had guns on them, and you never knew when they would come to get you.”

Fomina said she had cancer and needed chemotherapy but had been unable to get treatment for more than eight months. “At our hospital, in order to get any sort of treatment you’d need to show a Russian passport,” she said. “Otherwise you didn’t have any rights.”

Volodymyr Tymar, 18, said Russian soldiers had stripped him down to his underwear on the side of the road to look for pro-Ukrainian tattoos – describing what he said was a common tactic. Two of his friends had been detained for a week and a month respectively. They had hardly been fed, and were released with shaved heads.

“It was like a gulag,” he said.

Others described even worse treatment.

Valeriy, a 20-year-old military cadet, said Russian military police had searched his house in the spring while he was at work and found his military ID. They then came to his work and arrested him. He was taken to a base run by the FSB, the Russian federal security service, where he was blindfolded, beaten, and shocked with electricity for a week as the Russians tried to pry information out of him.

“When they took me home, I couldn’t speak for two weeks,” said Valeriy, who did not give his last name. “I thought I was gong to die in there.”

While many of those who had suffered remained silent, or told their stories quietly, scores more took to the central square, dancing and laughing.

When explosions sounded in the distance – likely outgoing rounds fired toward Russian positions on the other side of the Dnieper River – few in the crowd seemed to notice.

Reporters for The Washington Post were among the first wave of journalists to reach Kherson city on Saturday, and everywhere there was evidence of the intense fighting that preceded the Russian surrender.

The highway from the nearby city of Mykolaiv was littered with massive craters and burned out vehicles.

In villages on the way to Kherson city, people old and young stood by the roadside to wave and shout greetings at soldiers entering the city.

In Kyselivka, itself liberated only on Thursday, two young men stood next to a hand-painted sign pointing the way to the regional capital, smiling and giving thumbs-up.

“Glory to our heroes,” another man shouted.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
A fireman works at the scene of an apartment building destroyed in Russian strike in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Nov. 11.

A few miles closer to Kherson city, a bridge had been blown up in what appeared to be a failed attempt to stop the Ukrainian advance.

At the edge of the city they had been trying to reach for months, young soldiers stopped in front of a “Kherson” sign and took selfies.

A few blocks farther into town, billboards showing a smiling blond girl promised that “Russia is here forever.”

A group of young men were painting over one of the billboards, rendering the promise – or threat – a laughingstock.

Kherson city had been without running water for four days, and without electricity for a week, residents said. Cellphones were useless. So, people at the central square resorted to shouting over the noise of raucous celebrations.

“We’ve waited for so long for this to happen,” Andriy Fyedorov, 23, said as he stood on top of a black SUV, waving a Ukrainian flag. “I always believed this would happen,” he said of liberation, “up until the very end.”

The mood was mostly festive. Techno music thumped as people danced and sang. Someone handed out candy and ice cream bars. Inside one restaurant, people cooked meat in the dark: a celebratory feast.

There was no sign of the occupiers who had terrified many here for the better part of a year. Most people in the square said it had been four or five days since they last saw Russian soldiers, though a few said they had seen Russians as recently as Friday.

Whenever it was, the occupiers left quickly.

Alina Kanivchenko, 19, said she had heard rumors earlier in the week that the Russians who had been living in a bunker down the street had fled. A friend went to check and found the Russians had left behind bulletproof vests, food and other belongings.

As dusk began to fall on the central square, more military vehicles arrived, each one welcomed with cheers, honks and chants of “Z.S.U.,” an acronym for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

As the party continued, some people pulled away and headed home, along pitch-black streets, to apartments without power or water. Among them were three children who were friends from the same neighborhood. They had walked 30 minutes to get to the square.

“We wanted to see the military,” said Iryna, 9, a soft-spoken girl in a hat and scarf. Now that it was dark, they were afraid of walking home alone.

Yehor, a 12-year-old with a Ukrainian flag around his shoulders, said some people in their neighborhood had generators but his home didn’t.

Iryna held a cardboard box full of canned meat, ice cream and chocolate bars that someone had given the children. “The last time we had this,” she said, “was when there was no war.”

For some, their joy was all the more intense because of what they had gone through.

Iryna Yefimova, 49, said Russian security agents had beaten down her door, hit her husband and 15-year-old son, and taken her prisoner. The Russians detained her for two months, she said, accusing her and a sister in Ukrainian-held territory of assisting the Ukrainian armed forces. When she was finally released, she received no explanation for her ordeal. But that ordeal made Saturday all the sweeter.

“It’s freedom here,” she said.

“I’m happy in my soul,” added her son, Timofey.

Yet for others, there would be no happiness until their loved ones came home.

When Obozna’s son was detained on Aug. 3, his children saw him lead away. “Are you going to give him back,” Dmytro’s six-year-old son had asked the Russian security agents.

Obozna went to the police to report that her son was kidnapped. The police said they would investigate, but instead it was the family that tracked Dmytro down to a detention center. Obozna wasn’t able to call or visit him, but she received word from released prisoners that her son was alive and okay.

But on Oct. 20, she heard the prisoners were being taken away. Obozna thought her son – who she said had fought in the Azov Regiment in 2015, perhaps putting him on the radar of the Russians – was now being held in a town across the Dnieper River. But as she spoke, another bystander interjected, saying he believed the prisoners had been taken to Crimea.

“We don’t know,” she said, shaking her head.