SSouthern Ukraine in November is a gray mass of barren brown farmland. The bright greens and yellows of the fields have faded and the snow has not yet fallen. But the upbeat mood in the small town of Snihurivka contrasted sharply with the season.
Around the city’s bombed-out buildings, mountains of rubbish left behind by Russian soldiers, and shrapnel-strewn streets, groups of smiling, happy residents gathered to chat. When the cars passed, they waved and smiled. They described feelings of ecstasy at the sight of Ukrainian troops and debated which insults were more appropriate for Russian soldiers: were they “pigs” or “beasts”, they wondered.
Snihurivka was firmly seated on the front line, only a kilometer from Ukrainian positions, and was recaptured by Ukrainian forces on Thursday. The Russian Defense Ministry announced a tactical withdrawal of its forces in the south after Ukraine repeatedly destroyed its supply lines and ammunition depots.
The outbursts of joy captured across the newly recaptured strip of southern territory stem from the hope instilled in locals by the long-talked-about southern offensive first announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in late June. then again at the end of August. Ukrainian forces took their first decisive steps in early October.
Unlike the northern regions of Ukraine, including areas near Kyiv, which were liberated as the country was overwhelmed by the scale of the invasion, or the Kharkiv region, which was recaptured as the world was looking elsewhere, the liberation of the Kherson region was so publicized by Ukrainian authorities that it became a fixation for many Ukrainians, especially for those who lived there.
“I have a radio – a battery-operated one,” said Sasha, a thin man in his sixties, carefully stepping over a pile of sand in case the Russians had left mines below. “I knew [the Ukrainian army] was coming. We were just waiting.
“I can’t tell you how I felt seeing [Ukrainian troops]. We went for eight months without electricity, without water,” said Olga Ivanovna, neighbor and friend of Sasha. “We slept in our basements, fully clothed. Three months! Three months, we waited!
Residents said they tried to follow the news any way they could after their electricity went out and Russian soldiers went door to door confiscating phones. Some had generators and could pick up Ukrainian television; a few managed to keep their phones on and were climbing to the top of abandoned five-story buildings to pick up a signal.
Standing outside her house, talking to friends, Vera Borisovna, 65, pointed to her empty flowerbed and beamed, saying: ‘There’s nothing left, we’ve taken them all to give to our guys’ , her voice shaking as she spoke of the moment Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.
“I can’t help but smile because it’s been eight months since there’s been anything to smile about,” said Borisovna, whose house was between Russian positions and had to hide behind his fence to avoid the shrapnel that marked his street. She said she kept a diary because that was the only way to know what date it was without power.
Virtually none of Snihurivka’s residents left when the invasion began, or after they fell under occupation, they said. They were either too old, or didn’t have enough money, or both. They described themselves as hostages, dodging stray fire while trying to find supplies and avoid Russian soldiers.
The hardships fostered a sense of community and togetherness that residents say bound them together. The head of the city market, for example, Oleksandr Shevachuk, traveled with his wife, Valentyna, to Kherson at their own risk to buy food for the only store in the city, which they set up in their garage.
But just like in other towns and villages in Ukraine, there were people, mostly men, who, although happy that the Ukrainians had returned, would likely bear the scars of occupation for the rest of their life.
Volodymyr Perepilnitsia, 58, was arrested three times by the Russians, beaten, tortured and regularly intimidated. As a former Ukrainian army captain and police officer, his name appeared on a Russian list of potential pro-Ukrainian troublemakers.
The first time the Russians took him in for questioning, they accused him of being a knocker, slang for a spy. The second time he was taken away because he refused to accept their humanitarian aid, after which, he said, they ransacked his house as punishment.
The third time he was arrested, it was because a 20-year-old Ukrainian soldier, whom he had seen the day before being violently beaten by Russian troops, had disappeared. Perepilnitsia said the soldier escaped with his wife on a moped at night.
“They kept me in solitary confinement for five nights in a row and beat me,” said Perepilnitsia, who said the Russians were using the local police station as an interrogation center. “They beat a young man to death. I know it because I heard it. I was in the next cell and heard them beating him, then I heard them drag him out.
Perepilnitsia said he did not know where the dead man was buried, but he said there were “many” men missing since the Russians took control in March.
Before the Russians left Snihurivka, which locals say happened within hours, they sowed what is likely to be future misery for the townspeople.
“All the fields are mined,” Perepilnitsia said, pointing to the land surrounding the town. “A young farmer went out yesterday to see the new cemetery and blew himself up. No one has yet picked up his body. He survived here and died there. What can I say?
The head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, told Ukrainian television that the Russians had mined “huge swaths” of the area before their retreat, along with explosives.
“Anyway, you see what they’ve done here – pigs,” Perepilnitsia said, pointing to the charred buildings and the sea of rubbish that surrounds them.
Accompanying Perepilnitsia was her puppy Jack Russell, who peed on car tires. “Patron!” he exclaimed. Patron is the name of the jack russell that Kyiv rescuers trained to find mines at the start of the war, now famous throughout the country. It seems that despite their isolation and suffering, the people of Snihorivka followed the war along with the rest of Ukraine.