Amid ceaseless bombardment, Kherson residents shop at the market, clean their homes, and document the horrors of war
by Tom Burgis
7 Nov 2023
On the Saturday, the Russians hit a school and a grain store. On the Sunday, the ceaseless bombardment of Kherson from across the river struck a medical facility. An artillery round landed near a middle-aged man. The doctors did their best but the shrapnel had pierced his brain.
On the Monday, a bus, a library and a graveyard. On the Tuesday, a warehouse and two cars. The occupants of the car hit by a kamikaze drone were concussed. The other car caught fire when a shell smashed into it. After firefighters put out the flames, they found what remained of the owner inside.
On the Wednesday, a round landed just after breakfast in the middle of town, between a block of flats and a florist. Three council employees were walking along, the working day ahead of them. Shards from the blast wounded two. The third died on the kerbside. A blue plastic sheet was laid over her body. All around, glass from blown-out windows crunched underfoot.
The governor of Kherson region has beseeched civilians in this southern area of Ukraine to leave. He has offered free travel and help with accommodation. As well as shells to dodge, there has been a flood, unleashed, apparently by the Russians, when the Kakhovka dam was destroyed in June.
And yet last Thursday morning at the city’s market, almost a year since Ukraine’s liberation of the area, residents were stocking up for another week on the frontline.
The Dnipro river cuts the region in two. The eastern side is still occupied by the Russians. Freedom has returned to the western side, where Kherson city abuts the bank, but not peace. In the year since Ukrainian troops reached the centre of Kherson, the hundreds of shells, bombs, mortars, missiles and drones that the Russians fire across the river every day have killed 397 and injured 2,057, according to the local authorities, equivalent to about a quarter of the civilian death toll from murder, shelling and mines during the occupation.
One of the weapons from the sky landed beside the shop opposite Victoria’s market stall a few weeks ago. It sold milk, cheese and sausages to a loyal clientele. The shopkeeper had stepped out for a cigarette. That’s what saved her. The charred husk of the shop stands 2 metres from where Victoria sells an array of underwear: frilly knickers and practical pants, unicorn and rainbow ones for girls, boxers emblazoned with “I’m not a morning person”. She smooths and straightens them constantly. “When this happened, I thought: maybe it’s time to evacuate,” says Victoria,
wearing a woolly hoodie as winter draws in. Like several of those who spoke to the Guardian in Kherson, she doesn’t want to be identified beyond a first name or a pseudonym. “After a couple of days, I calmed down. I have a lot of stock. It’s difficult to relocate it to another city. I don’t know how I would live there.” Some of her friends have gone to Odesa, putting a hundred miles of Ukrainian territory between themselves and the Russians. “But they say everything is more expensive. Food, rent, life.”
Suddenly Victoria sobs, and turns away to compose herself. Two stalls along, Halyna’s tears come, too. She lives in Antonivka, a suburb in the riverside strip that has in recent days become the target of even more ferocious attacks than usual after Ukrainian marines gained a beachhead on the Russian bank.
In her 50s, with dyed crimson hair and hands tightly clasped, Halyna says there is no electricity in her area. Her old driving instructor has been killed, and a friend of her father’s. “I don’t expect anything good soon,” she says, but adds: “We built our own house. Everyone is saying: ‘Why don’t you evacuate?’ But we can’t leave this. We can’t leave our own home.” There’s no work for her husband – a builder – so she must keep the market stall going, selling mainly socks. “If I had children,” she says, “I think I would go.”
Nearly half the mothers and children who attended Olga Tsilyhko’s respite centre have left – the ones who could afford to, she says. An effervescent woman in a very orange sweater, Olga throws open a cupboard to reveal shelves she manages to keep stuffed with plasticine and puzzles. Many of the children who use the centre have cerebral palsy, like Olga’s daughter. There’s a ball pool in the corner, a favourite with the non-verbal youngsters. “Our task is to give our kids a place where they can feel safe,” she says. The building has been shelled twice.
The children’s centre is on the ground floor of a block. When Russians from the FSB security service arrived after the invasion, they took over the upper floors and directed a campaign of murder, rape and torture to subdue the local population. They have gone, driven out by last year’s Ukrainian advance, but so have many locals. Before the war, the western half of Kherson was home to half a million people. Scarcely a third remain. Olga is down to her last therapist. Yet she will not countenance the centre closing. “Me and my 20 families, we are like one family. Like one organism. We survived the occupation. We are not scared.” There is much to fear. The FSB no longer has offices in town but it has plenty of spies in Ukrainian territory. Some of the Kherson residents who joined the resistance during the occupation worry that collaborators may yet target them. Then there is the arrhythmic percussion that has become the accompaniment to daily life.
Svitlana Budyukh can distinguish every type of Russian ordnance by the noise it makes. So she knew it was a tank round that slammed into her neighbour’s house on 19 October. She was cleaning the porch. Having lost her mother early in the war, Svitlana had already evacuated her daughter and another child she cares for. Her son, in his early 20s, was in the kitchen cooking a pork cutlet. The affluence of Svitlana’s area offers no protection: it lies in the lethal zone close to the river. The explosion knocked out her windows. Two days later, the road outside her door was
hit. Another two days passed. She and her son were next door when she heard the whistle of a mortar. It blew her house to ruins. If they had been at home, they would be dead.
This nearest of misses pushed Svitlana to evacuate the last of her children. She herself is going nowhere. For one thing, she’s now living in the house her godmother left behind; she feels she must protect it from the looters she says ransack abandoned dwellings. And there are still life’s comforts. She has conquered her nerves to the point that her hands are perfectly still when she gets her nails done. “This is my city,” Svitlana says, “I want to see it beautiful and strong.” She and her neighbours like to fantasise about the feast they’ll have when it’s over: borscht with succulent dumplings and delicious lard.
The banquet looks far off. Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said last week: “Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” although president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has rejected this. The Russians have reportedly replenished their stocks of shells with a million more from North Korea.
One Russian round that hit Kherson brought smiles. It fell on a travel agency. No one was hurt but the world map on the wall was damaged: Russia fell off, Ukraine remained intact. Mostly, though, each day brings fresh pain. It is Andriy Kovalenko’s job to document it. A local prosecutor, before the war he worked on all sorts of cases. Now he does only war crimes. So far, he and his team of 21 have documented 19,000, committed up close during the occupation and from afar since liberation. A shell landed recently round the corner from his sandbagged office. It killed three people. The crater has been filled and the green benches where they were sitting restored. On one is a bouquet of flowers. Kovalenko misses his teenage daughter, far away in Kyiv with her mother. While he talks, a Russian shell sails overhead. The booms from Ukrainian artillery returning fire are joltingly close. Kovalenko speaks in a level tone. There are no days off, no holidays. The task, he says, is too important. “If you don’t punish evil, it will come back bigger.”
Tom Burgis is a bestselling author and award-winning investigative reporter. His latest book, Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world, was published in 2020 and became an international bestseller. It exposes the hidden connections that link a massacre on the Kazakh steppe and a stolen election in Zimbabwe to the City of London and the White House. The book shows how the world’s kleptocrats – those who rule through corruption – are uniting and threaten to overwhelm democracy. After abandoning early efforts as a wandering poet, Tom served as a foreign correspondent in South America and Africa. He spent 16 years at the Financial Times, including as a long-standing member of the investigations team. He has exposed corruption scandals, covered terrorist attacks, coups, neo-Nazis and forgotten conflicts, and traced dirty money around the world. His journalism has won awards in the US, UK and Asia. In 2023 he joined The Guardian as an investigation’s correspondent.