After two nights of jubilation following the liberation of their city, the people of Kherson on Sunday began to assess the extent of the damage wrought by eight long months of Russian occupation, with residents still without electricity and water.
On Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russian forces had destroyed key infrastructure before retreating, while the mayor of Kherson said the humanitarian situation was “severe” because of a lack of medicine and bread.
The departing Russian troops also left behind thousands of mines, trip-wires and unexploded shells.
Roman Golovnya, an adviser to city local administration, said: “Russian occupying forces and collaborators did everything possible to make those people who remained in the city suffer as much as possible during these days, weeks and months of waiting.”
The retreating Russians had comprehensively destroyed all critical infrastructure including communications, electricity, water, heat, a 100-meter TV tower and at least four bridges.
The Ukrainian authorities are trying to assess the damage to the Nova Kakhovka dam, on the Dnipro river, about 40 miles to the north-east, which the Russians attempted to blow up during their withdrawal. Satellite images show signs of destruction “with sections of the dam and sluice gates destroyed”. However, it is not clear if the structural integrity of the reservoir is at risk. With a water volume of 18.2 cubic km, if destroyed, the Kakhovka Reservoir could flood a huge area, including the city of Kherson.
Residents have testified that Russian troops carried out rampant looting in the city, stealing private cars, washing machines, microwaves, women’s clothes and other household goods. They removed 15,000 exhibits from Kherson’s art museum and stole the bones of Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s friend and lover, from a crypt in the city’s cathedral.
On Sunday it emerged they had also taken most of the animals from Kherson’s zoo. Llamas, wolves, donkey, racoons and squirrels were all shipped to Crimea. “The zoo’s racoon was stolen not by some stupid soldier but by the Russian command,” said Oleksandr Todorchuk, the head of UAnimals, which rescues animals in war.
Ukrainians accused Russians of blowing up dozens of schools across the province, further damaging the prospects of children who have already missed nine months of lessons. In the occupied village of Mala Oleksandrivka, Russian soldiers converted the local school into a military base and parked their tanks next to the sports field. In Mylove – liberated on Thursday – they blew up the main school and nursery as they rolled out in armoured vehicles. About 300 people stayed in the village during the occupation, including teenagers and children of primary school age. They waved at visiting cars and smiled.
“Our kids have had no education since 24 February,” said Serhii Melnikov, a local resident. With little or no internet, it had been difficult for students to access online education, he said, adding that the village was without power, water and gas, a situation typical across the rural Kherson area.
Utility companies on Sunday said they were working flat out to restore connections. They said it would take at least a month before electricity could be restored to the city of Kherson. In some of the region’s northern communities closest to the former frontline power might be restored as early as next week, they said.
However, Iryna, a resident from Kherson city, said in a Telegram channel that the hope that light and water would be restored in a short time remained distant. “The guys are already doing a lot, but we need to look reality in the eyes,” she added. “The electricity today, tomorrow and even the day after tomorrow will not appear … everything will be later, we just need to be patient and wait.”
“The war is still going on in the country and in our city”, said Yulianna, another resident from Kherson. “We had been waiting for 8 months, we can wait for more weeks?!! The most important thing is that the city has been liberated.”
As has already happened in other Ukrainian regions occupied by the Russians at the start of their invasion, the first move of the Moscow troops was to destroy the telecommunication towers. For nearly eight months, the people of Kherson have been cut off from the world, from time and space. The lack of telephone networks has meant no more contact with the outside world. On Saturday, a wifi hotspot was set up next to the main bus station using a satellite dish, with passersby able to log on.
Some have already started gathering wood in preparation for a cold and bleak winter.
According to US officials, the Kremlin’s decision to pull out of the Kherson was based in part on concerns that its soldiers would “be cut off from supplies as winter set in”.
Additional security measures were being carried out, as military police checked the documents of local residents and hunted for Russian soldiers and saboteurs who might have disguised themselves as civilians. The regional governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said the authorities would maintain a curfew from 5pm to 8am and would ban people from entering or leaving the city.
“The enemy mined all critical infrastructure objects. We are trying to meet within a few days and [then] open the city,” he told Ukrainian TV, adding that mobile phone operations could start working on Sunday.
Mines left behind by Russian forces are becoming one of Ukraine’s biggest challenges, especially as it rushes to clean up and restore the ruins. According to Kyiv, more than 2000 explosive items from booby traps to mines have already been removed.
In Kharkiv region, two road workers were killed and another four injured by a mine while trying to re-tarmac the road in a formerly occupied area.
In his latest video address on Sunday, Zelenskiy said that the Ukrainian army’s spectacular counter-offensive would continue.
“We will definitely reach our state border – all sections of the internationally recognised border of Ukraine,” Zelesnkiy said. He promised the de-occupation of the southern cities of Henichesk – named by Russia as its new administrative “capital” for the Kherson region – and Melitopol.
His statement suggests Crimea – illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014 – is an active Ukrainian military target.