KHERSON, Ukraine ( Associated Press) – A hand grenade prepared in a washing machine at a Kherson home. Road sign maliciously directing pedestrians into a deadly minefield. A police station that reportedly had a torture chamber, but there are still so many nets that mine-clearing teams haven’t even started looking for evidence.
A wave of jubilation swept across Ukraine on Sunday, a month after Moscow’s troops pulled out of Kherson and its surroundings after eight months of occupation. But life in the southern city is still far from normal.
Departing, the Russians left behind all kinds of audacious surprises, and their artillery continued to shell the city from new positions across the Dnieper River. The regional government said on Saturday that attacks in Kherson have killed 41 people, including a child, and sent 96 to hospital over the past month.
Electricity still comes and goes, although running water works for the most part, and indoor heating has only recently been restored – and only in 70–80% of the city – by Russian forces with a massive central heating system. After being blown up which serves a good part of the city.
For officials and civilians, it is a daily task to deal with the endless complexities and risks left by Russian troops and to prepare for new ones.
On Friday alone, Russian forces bombarded the area 68 times with mortar, artillery, tank and rocket fire, according to the local affiliate of Saspilin public television. Meanwhile, in the past month, 5,500 people have taken evacuation trains and work crews have cleared 190 kilometers (115 miles) of highway, Saspilan said.
When aid trucks arrived a month earlier, despondent and war-weary residents crowded the central Svoboda (Freedom) Square in search of food and supplies. But after a Russian attack on the square when people lined up to enter a bank in late November, such crowds have become less common and aid is distributed from smaller, more discreet distribution points.
According to regional officials, about 80% of Kherson’s pre-war population fled when the Russians arrived a few days after the invasion began on 24 February. Between 60,000 and 70,000 residents remain and the place now resembles a ghost town. Those who stayed are almost always covered up, as they have reservations about being out on the road.
“Life is getting back to normal, but there are a lot of shells,” said Valentina Kitiaška, 56, who lives in the nearby town of Chernobayvka. He bemoaned the thunder in the night and the uncertainty about where the Russian ammunition would fall.
Normality in a country at war is a relative term. There is no indication that what Russia insists it describes as a “special military operation” will end in days, weeks, months or years.
Meanwhile, painful efforts to normalize the situation continued, such as clearing the chaos and mines left behind by the Russians in the midst of a bitter winter.
“The difficulties are very simple, it’s the weather conditions,” said a member of a military demolition team, who used the nom de guerre technic. Some of their equipment does not work in cold winter temperatures “because the ground is frozen like concrete.”
Deploying additional teams could reduce the heavy workload, he said. “To give you an idea, during the month of our work we found and removed tons of mines,” said Technik. He said his team focused on an area of about 10 square kilometers (about 4 square miles).
In the Berislavsky district of Kherson, a main road was blocked with a sign reading “Mines Ahead”, directing pedestrians to a smaller road. In fact, it was the side road that was mined, which cost the lives of several military destroyers. A few weeks later, four more policemen were killed there, including the police chief of the northern city of Chernihiv, who had traveled to Kherson to help revive the city.
The general poor condition of the weather-beaten roads helped the Russians hide their death trap: potholes, some covered with dirt, provided convenient places to lay mines. On occasion, the Russians dug their holes in the asphalt.
Mine-clearing teams move slowly from house to house to make sure the owner or occupant can return safely. Experts tell that it can take three days to clean a house.
The team finds a hand grenade stuck in a washing machine in a house. The spigot was placed such that opening the detergent tray would cause an explosion.
The city’s main police station, where the detainees were allegedly tortured, is packed with explosives. Part of the building blew up when teams tried to break in, so the project has been saved for later.
Long standing problems are yet to be resolved. Kherson is in an agricultural region that produces wheat, tomatoes and watermelons, which are symbols of the region. Technik said the fields have been so heavily mined that about 30% of the area’s land is unlikely to be planted in the spring. At a quick glance at the fields, anti-tank mines can already be seen.
Still, after a night of attacks from Friday to Saturday, Kherson resident Oleksandr Chebotaryov said life under Russian occupation was even worse for him, his wife and their three-year-old daughter.
“It’s easier to breathe now,” the 35-year-old radiologist said before adding. “If the eruptions don’t stop before the new year, I will leave.”
Keaton reported from Kiev, Ukraine. Evgeny Maloletka in Kherson, Ukraine contributed to this post.