What I Learned in Liberated Kherson
Rather than a landscape of misery, what I've found in Ukraine are brilliant examples of what it means to resist, by ordinary people whose lives themselves are acts of protest.
(A version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star on Dec. 22.)
In Kherson, a city near Ukraine’s Black Sea shores, war and winter have turned the surrounding steppe into a mud-colored void. Flag-waving survivors crowd its streets and squares that only one month ago were strewn with lifeless bodies, victims of an eight-month occupation that saw many civilians murdered or deported to the Russian east.
Kherson was the first regional capital to fall to the Russians, and its recapturing on November 11 was a massive milestone for Ukrainian nationalists. When I arrived in the city five days later, the wounds of occupation were so fresh that Kremlin-approved billboards still littered residential neighborhoods and landmines blanketed streetsides.
Seated next to me on the press bus was a young Chinese photographer who had visited the day prior. “There was a dead body laying there,” he said, pointing to the entryway of a petrol station off the highway. “I guess they took him away.”
I spoke with children near Kherson’s riverbank, where audible artillery and gunfire perforated our conversations.
Alya, 8, shook her head when I asked if she liked going to school under Russian occupation.
“In the Russian [school], I didn't understand anything, so I liked the Ukrainian one more… now that Ukraine returned, we're waiting for the Ukrainian one to reopen.”
“We really want electricity and water,” she added. “I don't know when they will turn it on…there's so much hardship because there's no water…I want to cook something to eat but there's no water. But we stored a little bit so we have some for now.”
A 10-year-old boy told me that his parents refused to send him to the Russian-operated school, instead opting to homeschool him since March. “There was no Ukrainian language [allowed] in school,” he said.
When I asked if anyone from his class had left Ukraine for Russia, he and several of his friends answered in the affirmative. “A lot of people moved out,” said a friend of the boy. “Almost all my class is gone.”
In the central square, I met Lyudmilla, 74, hunched over a cane, who sobbed while speaking about the crimes she witnessed.
“You couldn’t open the window, there is this disgusting smell of corpses…this vomitous smell, it's the smell of burnt bones. They were throwing them into pits…dousing them with gasoline, because they didn't want to waste diesel fuel. I burnt my throat from [the fumes], and it still hasn't healed. For two weeks I couldn't swallow.”
Now that Ukraine has retaken the city, and secured its streets, Lyudmilla feels confident enough in her safety to venture outside and search for reminders of the life she knew.
"We used to have an ecologically green oblast,” she said. “Now [bombings] have turned it into a swamp… and there are no more birds at all. But today I heard geese flying, returning to the sea. And I said ‘Thank you, my dears—fly, my dears, fly back to your home.’”
Nearby, I met Luba, a fiery 35-year-old schoolteacher parading a Ukrainian flag around the city’s administrative building. I could hardly hear her shouting because hundreds of other Khersonians, gathered around to celebrate, were shouting even louder.
“The [Russians] detained me for three days and then let me go,” she cried. “They didn't give me any food—just half a bottle of water on the third day.”
“Didn't it break you?” a reporter asked.
“Nothing could break us,” she replied.
Rather than a landscape of misery, what I've found in Ukraine are brilliant examples of what it means to resist, by ordinary people whose lives themselves are acts of protest. In Kherson, a longtime center of Russian imperialism, any attempt to snuff out Ukraine’s will to fight has only shored up its resolve.
When I arrived in Ukraine, I was preoccupied with navel-gazing discourse about what the war is supposed to mean—I had prepared by reading long essays on its implications for the institutional rules-based order and European security architecture. But lost in the study and the noise are the important material realities forced on the human lives at stake.
As Moscow has learned, hearts are not won by billboards or leaflets. Hearts are never moved by what studies show, or by ink wasted on theory. As the war in Ukraine wears on, we must not lose our will to resist. To do this, I suggest we pay closer attention to those Ukrainians who’ve set the best examples of what it means to live, fight, and be unbroken.
P.S.: I’m considering releasing a lot of the video footage I shot in Ukraine on YouTube. I released the first video here. I’m thinking of releasing one long-cut in the form of a mini-documentary, and then several short vignettes capturing daily life in the country during wartime. This is the first in that series. If you want to follow along, I’d be grateful if you subscribed to the channel. I don’t really know what I’m doing, so any constructive comments or critiques would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
Hi Liam, I like that you write of real people without political over-speak. From their hearts. The video touched me with the generousity of the mushroom seller, reminding us to be kind and generous to each other. Judy