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Invincible Kherson: A Photo Essay
One year of freedom under deadly attacks.
By Zarina Zabrisky
Trigger warning: images from a war zone.
In March 2022, Russian forces occupied Kherson. Nine months of occupation followed, marked by destruction, looting, and suppression. Underground resistance persisted and fought back despite arrests and torture. After a sham referendum, the Kremlin annexed the Kherson region, among four other regions, on September 30, 2022.
On November 11, 2022, Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson. I reported from the Square of Freedom on November 14 when the first journalists were cleared to enter the city. The first shelling started right there, right then, as President Zelenskyy spoke to the people of Kherson at the Freedom Square. Russian military retreated to the eastern “left” bank of the Dnipro river.
Post-liberation revealed horrendous war crimes. I have reported from mass graves in villages. In spring 2023, with a stellar crew of war journalists and filmmakers John Sweeney, Caolan Robinson, and Paul Conroy, I co-produced a Byline Times film Under Deadly Skies: Terror and Torture in Ukraine. In the documentary, we show the KGB basements turned into torture chambers and banned chemical weapons burning down houses.
Extensive mining during the Russian retreat posed ecological threats. On June 6, 2023, the Russian military destroyed a hydroelectric dam in occupied Nova Kakhovka, intensifying the humanitarian and environmental crisis downstream of the Dnipro River.
Amid recovery from the nine-month occupation and the Nova Kakhovka ecocide, the Kherson region continues facing heightened attacks, including artillery, ballistic and anti-radar missiles, drones, chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and guided aerial bombs.
I spoke about Russia’s scorched-earth military strategy, explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, on PREVAIL when I arrived in Kherson in September to work on a full-feature documentary about the city. Our team of two—Paul Conroy and I—turned out to be the only foreign journalists based here for the last two months.
Due to the critical lack of correspondents, the tragedy of Kherson is severely underreported. The first week of November, on the eve of the liberation anniversary, colleagues from The Guardian and some other publications came for day visits. On the liberation anniversary, The Washington Post re-published an AP article, which pretty much defines the situation. A few pieces appeared here and there but overall, the situation is status quo: silence. Reasons? The Kremlin’s distraction tactics have worked, with most war journalists covering the war in the Middle East. Extended periods of waiting for security checks to work in the frontline zone have dissuaded outlets from sending reporters—many agencies cannot afford long waits. The situation at Kherson direction requires OPSEC—operational security, with the moves of the Ukrainian army not broadcasted to the adversary. Breaking OPSEC can lead to losses and lead to the failure of military actions as surprise is one of the major military strategies. Yet, it is possible and necessary to cover the attacks on civilians and report war crimes of the Russian Federation.
I have reported daily strikes, casualties, and destruction on the Russia-Ukraine podcast, Byline Times, and other publications, and on X/Twitter for two months. Paul Conroy publishes regular dispatches here. We are working hard on bringing you a documentary. None of this is enough.
For the one-year anniversary of liberation, I am grateful to share my photo essay to give PREVAIL readers an insider’s look at life in Kherson. Greg Olear has been covering the Kherson situation with me from the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion, and I hope that the PREVAIL audience helps us to spread the word.
“Invincible” is the word that you hear a lot in Kherson. A seasoned jazz street musician playing during an air raid, a woman hit by a shock wave from a ballistic missile, the owner of a clothes store damaged by artillery, and a sales lady at a food market by her kiosk struck by an anti-radar missile, all say the same: “It’s Kherson. We’re invincible.”
The center of the city is almost deserted.
Residents who remain choose to do so for various reasons. Some protect their property and are afraid of looters. Most don’t have the means to go elsewhere. There are few jobs in town: most enterprises are closed due to daily, sometimes hourly, shelling.
Some people remaining in Kherson are working to help the Ukrainian army liberate the east “left” bank of the Dnipro River, and their families don’t want to live apart. Many chose to evacuate, especially those from villages and towns in the Kherson region (called Oblast.)
Children still in Kherson go to online school and rarely play outside: due to the ongoing attacks, it is safer to stay at home or in a shelter. Very few people I know and talk to go to shelters. The air raids are ongoing and daily life would be impossible if one stayed in basements 24/7. There are discussions of equipping bank offices in shelters, but so far it’s just talks.
Remarkably, there are drawing lessons and arts and crafts taught in safe places in basements. As the Russians from across the river target gatherings, finding such classes—or theater shows and poetry readings—is difficult. There are no public announcements.
Khersonians’ love for animals is remarkable. A large number of dogs and cats are roaming the streets as their owners had to flee or were killed. The remaining residents feed the animals and attend to health and sanitary needs, when possible. Still, the gangs of wild dogs present a health and safety issue.
Shattered glass covers the streets along with pieces of shrapnel. This could be an issue for both stray animals and vehicles. Tires are punctured regularly. Many residents walk to get places and some even jog, explosions and sirens notwithstanding.
Kherson is an athletic city. Gyms are working. A yoga studio I go to for fly-yoga classes offers training, community, support, and an illusion of normalcy and safety. The thuds of MLRS (multi-launch rocket systems) fade away into the background, mixing with Zen meditation soundtrack.
Not just gyms: hair and nail salons are open. Looks matter. Even in the areas by the river where the attacks are especially brutal, ladies spot impeccable manicures.
To maintain such presence of mind under dire circumstances is pure Kherson. As favorite streets are getting pummeled, walking downtown is painful: ruined memories and new, haunting images of horror.
Several people were killed in the vicinity of my place during the last two months. I have photographed bodies, body parts, and puddles of blood. I will only share one image. I know that it is shocking, but this is a daily reality in Kherson. Every day, 2-3 civilians are killed.
Destruction is not just devastating on an emotional level. Broken windows, roofs, and walls during the cold season will bring more misery: winters are cold in Kherson. Last year, it was snowing and freezing in December. Communal services and volunteers strive to help, but, for the most part, residents fix the damage with their own resources—only to have the homes attacked the next day, in some cases.
Yet, Kherson is invincible. There are jokes, songs, and laughter even right after attacks. One of my photographic successes (and I am not a photographer!) was the map of the world in a tour agency struck by a Russian aerial bomb. A piece of shrapnel literally knocked Russia off the map. The visual metaphor went viral; even the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reposted my video on X. Imagine the astonishment: on the one-year anniversary of the liberation, November 11, 2023, they did it again. They struck the same building, the same agency, and the same wall.
“The writing on the wall,” joked many. Three hours later, the Russians shelled the same building, this time killing a man. The daily life in Kherson is an impossible mix of tragedy and resilience. As I was writing this essay yesterday, explosions rocked my apartment, walls shaking, glass jiggling. I had to stop to pull on my bulletproof vest and run to report from the sites. Russian military attacked downtown Kherson, and places so familiar by now were, again, covered in blood, shattered glass, and hellish pieces of metal—“Grad” shells.
Three killed, 12 injured; hospitals, cafes, and houses damaged and destroyed. I filmed one “Grad” that broke through the roof, flew through the bedroom, over a man’s head, and got stuck in the bathroom floor—as I found out a few minutes after filming, undetonated.
Photo credit: All images by Zarina Zabrisky.
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