At the foot of a building, Ukrainian police and soldiers move around a metal pipe. Nine floors up, the charred walls of an apartment appear through a gaping hole.
The tube is a GRAD multiple-launch rocket that has just landed in a residential area of Kherson, a large city in southern Ukraine that lives in terror from near-daily Russian shelling a year after it was liberated by the Ukrainian military.
In the charred corridors of the building, Natalia, 58, mourns her mother killed in the explosion. “It was under this slab that we found her,” he said through a sob, pointing to a huge block of concrete with one hand and clutching his white bathrobe with the other.
Under his feet, the ashes of what must have been the kitchen, which we can guess from an amalgam of charred pasta and melted pots.
In the neighboring apartment, a young woman enters what remains of her living room. Faced with damage, he puts his hands to his mouth and raises them to a religious icon still hanging on the wall. “My God! Why did you do this to me?”, she said before bursting into tears.
Kherson was the first major city and the only regional capital to fall to Russian hands at the start of their invasion launched in February 2022.
The port city experienced eight months of occupation before being liberated on November 11.
The scenes of joy and hugs of the soldiers with the inhabitants were quickly followed by the bombardments of the Russian army, withdrawn to the left bank of the Dnieper river bordering Kherson and became the first line in this area.
In one year, nearly 9,500 attacks hit the city and its surroundings, killing nearly 200 civilians, the regional administration told AFP. According to the NGO Médecins sans Frontières, 80% of the health structures in the Kherson region are destroyed or damaged.
Authorities estimate the current population of the city of Kherson at 60,000, down from 300,000 before the war.
On the facades of the city’s buildings, most of whose windows are blown out, you can still see traces of the occupation, like these yellow and blue ribbons – the colors of Ukraine – sprayed at that time by a resistance movement .
On the outskirts of Kherson, shopping centers are devastated. In the center, some shops still remain open: some grocery stores, drugstores and pharmacies. The last inhabitants who did not flee take shelter there, never staying outside in the evening.
Of the hundreds of stalls in the central market, only a few elderly people continue to take out their stalls. “It’s not recommended by the city council, they say it’s too dangerous,” explains Borys, the site’s administrator.
“Young people go to the front, we old people have to work”, said this 70-year-old man with a white moustache. He walks around the site, pointing out each hole caused by shrapnel from a rocket that fell two days earlier. “In this shop, a tailor suffered a cardiac arrest due to the explosion. We buried him yesterday”, he explains.
Borys now lives in the center of Kherson after moving from his home across the left bank of the Dnieper River. He says he fled during the occupation, on a boat, at night. “There were dozens of us on these boats. The Russians had cut off access to the bridge,” he explains.
Since then, he regularly hears from his neighbors who stayed there. “The Russians stole everything from my house, even my car,” the old man said. “I really miss my home.”
Here everyone has their own story about occupation and liberation, like Olena Danyliouk who fled the occupied city.
“The Russians were trying to mobilize young people over the age of 18, and because our son had just had them, my husband said we had to flee, we had no other choice,” recounts this 44-year-old woman.
Boarded in a car with minimal belongings, a white sheet hanging from the window, the family had to go through 13 Russian checkpoints. “They were all led by Chechens. But in the last one, it was the Russians who spoke Ukrainian, to trap us. But we still managed to escape, making it look like I was going to see my pregnant sister,” he says.
Olena returned to Kherson five days after the release to find her home.
The comeback was a shock. “I discovered that my city, normally so colorful, has turned gray. All the people were dressed strangely. Even the children of my friends were no longer smiling, they were emotionless”, he remembers.
Olena Danyliouk is now a volunteer for a foundation that distributes humanitarian aid. “People need it here,” he said.