A pool of blood-stained water and the wreckage of a burning car mark the spot in Kherson where Russian shells tore through the city on Thursday, killing four people and shattering a sense of peace, according to local officials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says that he annexed this area and that the people here are now Russians. But his troops have withdrawn, and now they are killing the civilians they once promised to protect.
Due to severe power and water shortages, the people of Kherson are suffering and the situation is getting worse as winter approaches.
Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, Kherson fell to Russian forces and was only released from the months-long occupation after the withdrawal of Kremlin forces on November 11. Now residents are facing violence familiar to many across the country.
At a small grocery store recently destroyed by shelling, a desperate local man sifts through the rubble for scraps of food and rolls of toilet paper for what little he can survive.
“Is it all that bad?” We ask. “It’s not good,” he replies darkly.
The city’s water supply has been cut off by a Russian attack, so we see an elderly woman on the street placing a bucket under a drain pipe to catch a feeble trickle.
Others, like Tatiana, who don’t want to give their last name, take a perilous walk to the banks of the Dnieper River, where the town is located.
Russian troops still control the opposite bank and the strategic river now marks a front with Russian troops several hundred meters away.
Tatiana fills two black plastic buckets, climbs the hill again and heads home. “How can we live without water?” “We (she) need to wash, go to the toilet, wash the dishes,” he says. “What can we do?” We cannot live without water. And so we came here.”
Artillery exchanges between Russian and Ukrainian troops echo in the background. This is not a place to mess around.
Just two weeks ago, the city’s central square was the scene of jubilation after the Russian retreat, one of Moscow’s biggest setbacks in the war.
Now the tents erected by the local administration stand as a reminder of the hardships here. One to warm up, one to charge the phone, one to help those who are fed up and want to leave.
In the charging tent, people of all ages gather around tables, drink tea, and chain themselves endlessly to power lines. The air is thick with body heat and breath.
Hanna and her daughter Nastya sit on the bed. It was the girl’s ninth birthday the day before, and she was decked out in Ukrainian face prints and had a flag draped over her shoulders.
“It’s been tough – we’ve been through all the trades,” says Hannah. “I can say that now we are living much better. No water, no electricity, but no Russians either. It is nothing. We can overcome it.”
After months of walking, Nastya shares the disobedience of the adults around her. “I think our enemies will die soon,” he says. “We will show you what you will get if you occupy Ukraine.”
This disobedience is also felt by those outside the city who avoid the invasion but live on the front lines of the war.
Valery, 51, and his wife Natalya, 50, hid in a potato cellar this spring when shells from Russia fell on their dairy farm, destroying their kitchen, destroying a tractor and a car.
Their roots are deep here. “Our umbilical cord is buried here,” Natalya says in Ukrainian. But when the war became too severe, they left their homes and beloved cows and soon returned after several months in exile.
“What is our life like?” Super!” – says Natalya with a laugh, while washing the dishes with water heated on the stove. “It’s very difficult. But at least we are at home.”
Valery holds a large scrap of metal – the remains of a rocket that landed in his yard.
“We lived in peace and quiet,” he says. “We were working and earning money. Some grew crops, while others had farm animals.’
Seeing what is happening to his village is “like a stone weighing on my soul,” he says.
“Everything we invented and built was done by hand. Now it is very difficult to come back and see what the Russian crooks have done to us. I have no other words for them.”
But he came back with a nice surprise. His beloved cows – which had been in the field for months – survived.
“I hugged them!” – he says, hugging them and smiling. “I felt joy! They survived. I was very worried about them.”