Photo by Vincenzo Circosta/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Kherson — the city that never sleeps

The daily Ukrainian struggle to survive

The first person I see as the sleeper train rolls into Kherson is a railway worker in a flak jacket and helmet — a sobering reminder that I’m entering a frontline city. The train was packed when I boarded in Kyiv, only for the majority of passengers to melt away at Mykolaiv. 

Once they’d left, it was like being on a ghost train heading to a ghost town.

It’s an overcast Saturday morning as I step out onto the wide Ushakova Avenue, bordered with tree-lined verges that are wildly overgrown and unkempt. The shops are all boarded up, except for the pharmacies. Packs of stray dogs roam the pavements. A handful of shoppers are out buying fruit and vegetables from vendors at street corners, whilst an aid worker in a black flak jacket delivers provisions to a nearby apartment. The occasional car and yellow bus shuttles past.

I am unnerved at being in direct view of the Russian military

I pass by Svobody Square, the scene of Kherson’s joyous liberation last November after eight months of Russian occupation. Now, it’s entirely deserted — the upper windows of its main administrative building blown out. The city around me strikes me as solely populated by older people, calling to mind the childless land of Vulgaria in Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Gradually, the passersby thin out as Ushakova Avenue begins to slope down to the Dnieper River that separates the Ukrainian side of Kherson from its Russian-held counterpart. I suddenly catch a glimpse of blue-grey water topped with green trees, and I am unnerved at being in direct view of the Russian military.

This is my third trip to Ukraine. The destruction I’ve already observed in Bucha and Kharkiv reminds me of George Orwell’s journey through Germany in the last months of WWII. “To walk through the ruined cities of Germany,” he said, “is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.” Like Orwell, I’m here to witness the everyday life of the people dwelling amidst the chaos. Remarkably, a fifth of the pre-war population of three hundred thousand are still living in Kherson.

I’m booked into the only guest house open, a forty-minute walk downtown from the station, but some roads have no street signs — presumably a legacy of the early days of invasion when Ukrainians removed the sign posts. Inevitably, I get lost and have to flag down a taxi. The driver’s smoking a roll-up, unseatbelted, and lets me clamber into the back beside some buckets. This is a city of war where there are no rules or conventions.

At the guest house, the manager Valentyna tells me in broken English that she was working in Bulgaria when the war started, but she had to come back to look after her elderly parents. She shows me my comfortable top-floor room — unlike Kyiv there appears to be no underground shelters or air raid warnings, since bombs are a daily occurrence. Living in Kherson is a game of chance. The one siren I hear all weekend faintly crosses the Dnieper from the Russian side.

As soon as I start exploring the neighbourhood, the low thud of a distant bomb shakes the air. After a few more explosions, I decide that discretion is the better part of valour and hurry back to the guest house where Valentyna invites me to sit with her in the porch. Her friends in the Ukrainian forces have just texted her to stay indoors whilst they conduct an artillery operation to which the Russians may retaliate. When I ask whether she’s scared of bombs, she replies, “I’m half afraid and half not afraid.” Later in the afternoon when I mention that the bombs are still at full pelt, she makes a nonchalant gesture as if swatting away a fly.

With the shells lessening in intensity, I venture out again. Surprisingly, the side streets are teeming with life: a tattoo shop, some coffee shops full of soldiers and — miracle of miracles — a grocery shop cum bar open daily from eleven a.m. to four p.m. with a few beer taps and packing crates as barstools. The walls are emblazoned with flags gifted by aid workers from around the world. The bar feels like an emblem of the makeshift survival of this city; people keep stopping to buy carry-outs of local beer freshly poured into plastic bottles.

The barman Roman jokes with a customer about medicinally deadening the “adrenalina” from the bombing with a shot of vodka. He was injured fighting on the front line and visibly limps behind the bar. In between pulling pints, he and the pubgoers show me photos of their bomb-ravaged houses and apartments, almost competing with each other in the hierarchy of suffering.

Incoming fire returns to downtown Kherson in the hours before dawn

By three o’clock, the denizens of Kherson start to retreat behind the rusted doors of their homes. I feel so watched in this city; by all accounts, Russian collaborators still reside here. Valentyna has spotted me wandering out to inspect the boarded-up Art Museum and tells me on no account to go there again — the guest house is in the last street that’s safe from Russian snipers stationed across the river. Back in my room, I discover on Google that today’s assault on Nova Kahkova was part of Ukrainian preparations for the spring counter-offensive. The bombing continues, sometimes with a burst of quickfire artillery, sometimes with longer lulls before yet another thud echoes like the slam of a reverberating metal door.

Valentyna informs me that the corridor light must be switched off at dusk, so that we aren’t a target for missiles. Personally, I’m glad of my thick curtains. Some of the windows in my street are further reinforced with pale sacking. At two thirty a.m. I’m woken up by a loud bang, the glass in the window frame shuddering in sympathy. I can hear military vehicles patrolling outside. The Russians keep firing on us at intervals until 4.30 a.m. when I finally get back to sleep.

In the bar the next day, Roman shows me the wreckage from last night’s attack on his phone — a blown-up college and kiosk on Ushakova Avenue, only seven streets away. Kataryna, who speaks fluent English, says that the bombs were so loud she asked her husband to shelter with her in the bathroom, but he just grunted at her to go back to sleep. “Sometimes, the bed vibrates so much, we just decide to have sex!” she jokes. “Ah, you have to laugh, otherwise you’d go mad here.”

When I ask why she’s remained in Kherson, her simple response is, “Just to say ‘fuck you’ to the Russians.” She passes her plastic container to Roman, who fills it with beer. “Now you see how we survive this place,” she grins wryly. On hearing I’m from Belfast, she quips, “Everyone from Ukraine’s gone to Ireland. Who knew Ireland would come to us?”

Two young guys, Nicolai and Yarek, are standing at the bar celebrating the birthday of their friend in absentia. When I ask where she is, Yarek explains that she’s chosen to spend her birthday with her husband who died in battle in December. Whilst she’s at his graveside in Kyiv, Yarek and Nicolai keep toasting her undaunted with vodka. Very drunk, they get back on their bikes to continue partying at Yarek’s home. “Extreme cycling,” laughs Nicolai.

Today, I’m much less aware of the backdrop of bombs. The collective resilience of the people is infectious. Valentyna tells me excitedly that an American, Tom Bates of K9 Rescue International, has arrived at the guest house. He’s planning to pick up four homeless dogs the next morning to be rehomed in Belgium. He explains that there has always been a stray dog problem in Kherson, but it’s been hugely exacerbated by the war.

In the evening, the electricity cuts out, reinforcing the cruel effects of the bombardment.

Incoming fire returns to downtown Kherson in the hours before dawn. A few explosions quake the earth, making my flesh judder through to my bones. A double-barrelled mortar is at work, and sometimes the shelling makes long drawn-out bass sounds like heavy manhole covers being slid across tarmac.

On Monday morning, I walk back to Kherson station. The bombs still grumble in the distance, but otherwise it’s spring-like. From observing the Khersonians, I’ve thought a great deal about fear, bravery and death. I believe there are two ways of dealing with life in an active war-zone — either you must make your peace with dying or think of yourself as immortal. I realise more than ever that western military support for Ukraine is urgent and vital.

Blossom on a tree is bobbing through the wooden frame of a destroyed roof. Nearby, a workman is clearing up fragments of broken glass with a twig broom. The whisk of it seems rhythmically peaceful and birdsong fills the air, masking the artillery fire. I keep walking up Ushakova Avenue, my shoes crunching on the sandy shingle of bombed masonry and glass, still in awe of Kherson’s will to survive.

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