At the foot of a building, Ukrainian police and soldiers are moving around a metal tube. Nine floors above, the charred walls of an apartment appear through a gaping hole.
The tube is a GRAD multiple launcher rocket which has just fallen on a residential area of Kherson, a large city in southern Ukraine which lives in terror of almost daily Russian bombings a year after its liberation by the army Ukrainian.
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,” she said in a sob, pointing to a huge block of concrete with one hand, and clutching her 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 the damage, she places her hands over her mouth then raises them towards a religious icon still hanging on the wall. “My God ! Why did you do this to me?”, she blurted out before bursting into tears.
Kherson was the first major city and the only regional capital to fall into 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of joy and embraces of the soldiers with the inhabitants were quickly followed by the bombings of the Russian army, withdrawn to the left bank of the Dnieper river which borders Kherson and became the front line in this area.
In one year, nearly 9,500 strikes hit the city and its surrounding area, killing nearly 200 civilians, the regional administration told AFP. According to the NGO Doctors Without Borders, 80% of healthcare structures in the Kherson region are destroyed or damaged.
Authorities estimate the current population of the city of Kherson at 60,000, far from the 300,000 before the war.
On the facades of the city’s buildings, most of whose windows are blown out, traces of the occupation are still visible, such as these yellow and blue ribbons – the colors of Ukraine – sprayed at the time by a movement of resistance.
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 flock there without ever staying outside in the evening.
Of the hundred stalls in the central market, only a few elderly people continue to take out their stalls. “It’s not recommended by the town hall, they say it’s too dangerous,” explains Borys, the site administrator.
“The young people go to the front, we old people have to work,” said this 70-year-old man with a white mustache. He walks around the place, pointing out each hole caused by shrapnel from a rocket that fell two days earlier. “In this store, a tailor suffered a cardiac arrest because of the explosion. We buried him yesterday,” he explains.
Borys now lives in central Kherson after leaving 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 has regularly received news from his neighbors who remained there. “The Russians stole everything from my house, even my car,” said the old man. “I miss my home so much.”
Everyone here has their own story about the occupation and liberation, like Olena Danyliouk who fled the occupied city.
“The Russians were trying to mobilize young people over 18, and as our son had just had them, my husband said we had to run away, we had no choice,” relates this 44-year-old woman. years.
Embarked in a car with the minimum belongings, a white sheet hanging from the window, the family had to cross 13 Russian checkpoints. “They were all run by Chechens. But at the last one, it was Russians who spoke Ukrainian, to trap us. But we still managed to escape, making it appear that I was going to see my pregnant sister,” she says.
Olena returned to Kherson five days after the liberation to find her home.
The return was a shock. “I discovered that my city, usually so colorful, has become gray. The people were all dressed drably. Even my friends’ children no longer smiled, they were emotionless,” she remembers.
Olena Danyliouk now volunteers for a foundation distributing humanitarian aid. “People need it here,” she said.