Amid joy in Kherson, a humanitarian disaster looms

Ukrainian civilians and soldiers in Kherson rejoice after Russian forces retreated from the city, on Nov 12, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KHERSON, Ukraine – Ukrainian soldiers worked to secure the city of Kherson on Saturday and battled Russian forces on its outskirts, the military said, one day after Ukraine’s special forces entered the southern port city to rapturous cheers from residents who had endured months of Russian occupation.

Despite the Russian withdrawal, the Ukrainian military’s intelligence agency said there remained Russian soldiers in fixed defensive positions, and that it was unclear whether they would fight, flee or surrender.

As Ukrainian forces entered the city, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, including a lack of water and electricity, became apparent. Nevertheless, for a second day, residents poured into the streets to celebrate.

The jubilant sounds of cheering and car horns mingled with occasional explosions from incoming artillery on the city’s outskirts.

The military also said Ukrainian forces were clearing mines and explosives left behind by the departing Russian forces, and searching for any Russian soldiers who might be hiding in abandoned homes.

As night fell and the city went dark, blacked out by electrical cables blown up during the fighting, a party that began Friday in the city’s central square went on.

Ukrainian songs banned under the occupation blared from a speaker. People cheered and sang along, dancing to the light of car headlights and flashlights. Couples embraced and swayed to a slow song by Ukrainian band Oceans of Elza, marking a little pocket of hope in a war that is not over.

Kherson, an urban hub with a prewar population in the hundreds of thousands, is mostly without heat, water, electricity, medicines and cell phone service. One Ukrainian official called it “a humanitarian catastrophe.” And Saturday, reports of explosions at a critical dam roughly 64km to the north-east cast a growing shadow over the celebration.

Looming to the east are formations of Russian forces and their artillery, mostly still intact following their very publicised recent retreat.

The city’s residents were still processing the fast-moving events on Saturday. Only a day before, they had been hiding their Ukrainian flags from Russian soldiers. Now, they wrapped themselves in their flag’s blue and gold and hugged Ukrainian soldiers in the streets.

“People walk on the streets and congratulate each other,” said Serhiy, a retiree who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “It’s just a holiday!”

Russians just a stone’s throw away

Amid the celebrations, however, the daunting scale of the humanitarian crisis in the area was coming into focus on Saturday.

Many people in Kherson have no heat, power or running water. Food and medicine are in short supply. Ukrainian military officials said the city was not yet safe for a large-scale humanitarian relief effort.

Further adding to the growing list of humanitarian concerns, Kremlin-aligned Russian news outlets published a video purporting to show a large explosion in the area of the Kakhivska hydroelectric power plant, which is a part of the Kakhova dam complex, roughly 40 miles northeast of Kherson.

It was unclear when the blast took place, but local residents said they had heard a large explosion Friday afternoon.

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Ms Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said some Russian soldiers in and around Kherson city were still actively engaged with Ukrainian forces. There were also reports, she said, of Russian soldiers surrendering to the Ukrainians or changing into civilian clothes and hiding in apartments.

“How many forgotten soldiers remain, it is very difficult to say at this point,” she said in an interview with Freedom TV, a Russian-language channel in Ukraine that focuses on broadcasting abroad.

She added that Ukrainian forces were “a stone’s throw away” from Russian forces that were fortifying positions on the other side of the Dnieper River, making them vulnerable to artillery fire.

Ukraine’s military also reported fighting in towns and villages outside Kherson city, including around the endangered dam in the city of Nova Kakhovka. NYTIMES

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