The past few weeks have been good ones for Ukraine. On November 9, Ukrainians were stunned to watch the remarks of Russian General Sergei Surovikin, the head commander of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, as he recommended to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russian troops pull back from the right bank of the Dnipro river entirely.
There was no ruse or trap at play, and two days later, the scenes of jubilant Ukrainian citizens greeting liberating troops in Kherson city filled social media. It marked a major victory for Ukraine, winning back the only provincial capital captured by Russian troops since the February 24 invasion.
A few weeks earlier, with Russia’s grip on right-bank Kherson still tight, Ukrainian troops had fought through stiff defences to capture a dozen villages in the province’s northeast. The situation there offers a glimpse of what the world is likely to learn about the realities of occupation in the rest of Kherson oblast – and of the challenges still ahead.
In the town of Vysokopillya, the scars of battle are everywhere. Roads are strewn with debris, while the city’s administration building – its coat of arms stripped off the monument in front when Russian soldiers captured it in March – lies in ruins, having been heavily shelled during its time as a Russian command post.
The town sits at the northern edge of what was once the line of Russian control in northeast Kherson, making its recapture by Ukrainian forces a necessity once the battle for Kherson began in earnest in late August.
Amidst the wreckage, several soldiers from Ukraine’s 96th Brigade stand guard, overseeing the nascent reconstruction operations. They survived the weeks-long battles for the town.
“We finally took [Vysokopillya] on the 3rd of September,” says Oleksandr, a combat medic with the 96th. “The school here was their main base,” he says, gesturing at a ruined nearby building, its roof caved in by artillery strikes. “It was filled with ammunition and every type of weapon,” he says.
By all accounts, the fighting here was some of the fiercest of the war, involving some of Russia’s most well-trained troops.
“[The Russians] took this town at the very start of the war,” says Oleksandr. “They had a lot of time to fortify it – it was the centre of their whole defensive line here [in northeast Kherson]. They had several thousand soldiers, all professional troops – no mobilized men. But they fight for refrigerators and washing machines – we fight for our own land,” he says, referencing the many videos that have appeared of Russian soldiers looting home appliances from occupied settlements.
"If they find us all here, they will simply shoot us"
A little further south, the village of Velika Oleksandrivka is perhaps in even worse shape, if such a thing were possible. Blackened buildings with the scorch-marks of artillery and rocket fire are everywhere, while regular tank revetments (barricades) speak to how recently it was liberated – Ukrainian forces recovered the settlement only on October 4th.
On one of the village’s main streets stands a house, once handsome but now ruined by a gaping hole in the roof – the result of a rocket strike. Despite this, it is still inhabited by Serhiy and Olga Balan, as well as their two young children. They described what it was like watching Russian soldiers roll into their town – and then into their home itself – shortly after the invasion began.
“I remember the first day the Russians came,” says Serhiy, a policeman. He had been hosting a number of his colleagues at his house after the war began – their houses, closer to the police station itself, were thought to be at risk of collateral damage if the station was targeted.
“We heard from our neighbour that [the Russians] were in the city, and that they were coming to check the houses on our block. They were coming down the street, shooting dogs, shooting at houses randomly. I told the other policemen at our house, ‘guys, you have to go, because if they find us all here, they will simply shoot us,” Serhiy says.
He and his colleagues hid their uniforms and weapons in the garage and fled to his grandfather’s house, out behind their building on the next block. His wife was left to answer the door when the Russian soldiers arrived.
“Just a few minutes after [Serhiy and his colleagues] left, the Russians came to our door,” Olga Balan says. “They immediately asked where my husband was – I lied and said he was in the hospital, sick with covid. They didn’t search our house, thank God. There were so many of them here – more than a thousand staying in the school across the street, with all their armoured vehicles and personnel carriers. They went from house to house, looking for anyone they thought might give them problems,” Olga says.
There was another problem: Olga was seven months pregnant when Velika Oleksandrivka was occupied. Her due date came just weeks later after.
“It was very scary to give birth to a child in that environment,” she says. “There were no doctors, no hospital working – the Russians would not allow us to leave. My husband snuck into the house and helped me give birth in the basement, just the two of us. Thank God, it went without any major problems.
“But a few days later, our house was hit by a rocket, causing all the damage you see. We started packing to leave, but the Russians noticed – and that’s when they found Serhiy. They took him for five days and tortured him badly,” Olga says.
The days melded together into a gray blur. Spring turned into summer, the days grew warmer, but the Russians stayed. They were inescapable.
The nightmare was over
Then, as suddenly as it all began, their nightmare came to an end.
“I will not say that on the last day of the occupation, we were waiting for the Ukrainian military, because we were waiting for them every day,” Olga Balan says. “All seven months we looked for them from the window. It was heartbreaking, because in our country, you are a free person, you can do what you want, you can freely express yourself. In their country [Russia], this is not possible – if you are told the sun is green, then you should repeat it. So when our troops finally entered it is impossible to convey the joy we all felt. The nightmare was over,” she says.
The Balans plan to rebuild their destroyed house. They acknowledge that the winter will be difficult, but after surviving the occupation, a little snow will be nothing in comparison.
There are many signs of the Russians’ presence, but the school across from the Balans’ house has a particular concentration. The letter ‘Z’ is still spraypainted on its outer walls, leaving no doubt as to its occupants. In the basement, where the Russian soldiers camped, personal effects and the remains of food – including, of course, empty bottles of vodka - are scattered about.
One tin of stewed beef on the table made a particularly long journey: its label indicates it was made in Buryatia, the Russian region bordering Mongolia from which so many of the Russian military’s recruits are drawn. Scrawled on the wall is an ominous message, presumably left just before the Russian retreat: three words reading “we will return”.
Mykola Havlenko, a 72-year old local pensioner, is waiting to receive a parcel in the crowd formed around the postal truck in the ruined centre of town. He hopes he’ll never see another Russian again.
“The first day [the Russians came], on March 10, we looked at them in disbelief, but thought maybe they were still human,” he says. “We’re all Slavs, but it turns out that they are completely different from us. They believe very strongly in their propaganda – they would tell us, ‘for eight years you [Ukrainians] bombed children in Donetsk and Luhansk, now it is your turn [to suffer].’ They used this to justify whatever crimes they wanted,” Havlenko says.
Even at the very end, the Russian depredations did not slow.
“On the last day [of the occupation], the Russians knew that they would leave the village,” Havlenko says. “So they spent their final hours robbing. My friend was out at the market, and he returned home to find two Buryats sitting at his table, eating his food. As if it was their own home!” he says with evident disgust.
The Russians are unlikely to return, as their slogan in the school promised. Their retreat from Kherson across the river has left them on the back foot, struggling to maintain their current positions, let alone take new ones. For the people in Velika Oleksandrivka, Vysokopillya and elsewhere, the struggle to rebuild their shattered homes will be a long one, but the main nightmare – the occupation – is over.