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Ukraine war: The cost of occupation in Kherson region

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    1 day ago

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There are moments when this war feels utterly mindless. Witnessing the visible trauma in the village of Kreshchenivka is one of those instances.

“Those Russians said they were liberators, they just started robbing us!” says a tearful Fedir. He says they took his car, furniture and mattresses. Nearly every house on his street has been damaged.

The 69-year-old lives in a part of the southern Kherson region which has been liberated by Ukrainian troops earlier in October. “My head aches from all the shelling, we almost starved to death in the first few months,” he said.

There is still no power, water, and the locals rely on volunteers for food. Our journey to him took us along poorly surfaced roads, which only deteriorated as we continued south towards the front line.

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To the right, piles of dug earth stretch for miles next to the road – a Ukrainian defensive measure to force Russian forces up a single route.

But they never made it this far. Twenty miles on, a rusty watermelon monument marks the tide mark of Moscow’s advance.

Watermelon

The fields are dotted with Russian missiles that have remained unexploded because of the soft soil.

The villages here are mostly destroyed from both their occupation and recent liberation. Despite the eerie quiet and visible destruction, there is movement.

Ukrainian vehicles are repaired at the side of the roads. Personnel carriers and tanks occasionally roar back and forth from the direction of Kherson city.

There is significant military activity. A logistical supply line forms an artery towards Ukraine’s continued counteroffensive.

It also brings life back to the villages it weaves through.

“A lot of people far away from the frontline are celebrating,” one soldier tells us, who only wants to be known by his call sign “Gadfly”.

Everybody is a bit nervous about going to the front, he says. “Your heart beats differently at times. But we signed up for this. We gave a pledge.

“Once the firing starts it’s three deep breaths, a couple of swear words and you move on.”

Russian headquarters

Gadfly was mobilised in March and isn’t a professional soldier. His country has the current momentum, but he thinks they can only fully force Russia out if the West continues with its military support.

“The problem is that the villages are razed. There’s no place to hide. If we don’t have the air superiority, it’s going to be difficult. We’re running out of planes, three or four were shot down last week.

“All this military stuff is fun and games until it’s not fun and games. My back is hurting already because of all the equipment!”

Despite having been forced out, you also learn a lot about the occupiers just by looking around.

In one school which they used as a base, their supplies, ammunition, and rubbish are scattered in all directions. These are not the traces of a disciplined force. It’s evidence they’d been fighting in squalor and left in a hurry.

Ukrainian teacher Alyona Bilous

Down the street we meet Alyona in the kindergarten she used to run. She lived under occupation for two months before having to escape.

She’d been “blacklisted” by the Russians, allegedly because she supplied villagers with food and helped them evacuate.

“They just left a mess. Mess and pain,” says Alyona. “When I came here for the first time after liberation, I just stood here and cried. It’s really hard.”

Alyona says when she first met a Russian soldier, he asked her “who allowed you to live so well?” Her family’s wooden house was left nearly empty after the Russians took everything away.

Fighting is starting to concentrate around the city of Kherson. There’s an almost constant rumbling of artillery about 10 miles (16km) away.

Destroyed home in Kherson region

As Russia’s grip on Kherson continues to weaken, fears grow of it deploying a “scorched-earth” policy.

Moscow-installed politicians have recently been “evacuating” people. Ukraine has accused Russian troops of preparing to blow up the nearby Kakhovka dam. Russia denies this but if it happened Kyiv says it would lead to 80 settlements being flooded.

They believe it indicates an “if we can’t have it, no-one can” approach.

For Ukraine, liberation here is fiercely contested as well as complicated. Also, if achieved, it doesn’t bring immediate relief.

Yet in the words of the Ukrainian soldier Gadfly, “what choice do we have”?

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