The Kremlin’s decision to launch a full-on military invasion has devastated hundreds of towns and communities across Ukraine, but few places have suffered more than the port city of Kherson.

Nine months after liberation by the Ukrainian military, the once-vibrant Black Sea trading hub is a shell of its former self, lived in mostly by the poor and the weak and a small corps of neighbors and volunteers that have stayed there to help them.

"When the water came, everyone had to get out,” Nataliya Livadina, a volunteer caretaker who looks after 98-year-old Bela Poklonska, tells Kyiv Post. “There was no way to survive.”

“So we had to carry her. She couldn't move herself. If she hadn't been moved, the water would have covered her. It was higher than the roof of her house."

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Occupied by Kremlin troops in Feb. 2022 and liberated by counter-attacking Ukrainian forces in November, Kherson had a pre-war population of more than 270,000.

Now, people still there say, four out of five residents have evacuated, leaving behind them a near ghost town with commercial avenues full of boarded-up stores, rows of unoccupied apartment buildings, front yards thick with weeds, and tree-lined streets practically empty save for police patrols.

No one is on their stoop. The trams are empty.

Kherson was hit by apocalyptic flooding on June 6 following the Russian demolition of the Kakhovka hydroelectric station dam upstream, inundating the city’s entire waterfront and most of the city’s low-lying Dniprovsky region.

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More than a month after a three-meter wall of water plowed through, the district appears almost totally uninhabited, nothing is being repaired and practically every building with flood damage seems a complete write-off.

The region was densely built with hundreds of single-family homes. Homeowner Andriy Taran told Kyiv Post the central government is slowly attempting to tally up the scale of damage, and that some damage adjustors had taken pictures of his home, but, no one has offered him any help, neither materials nor money.

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He said “probably between five and ten thousand Kherson families lost their homes in the flooding” as he had.

A Kyiv Post reporter during a district drive-through saw evidence of, at least, hundreds of severely water-damaged buildings. There are, as of yet, no official estimates of the extent and cost of flood damage in Kherson.

As in most developed countries, in Ukraine, a residence is almost always, by far, the single most valuable property for multiple generations of a family.

On higher ground in the center of the city, even individuals and establishments common to Ukrainian wartime towns on the front line – the international aid workers, soldiers on day passes, military police, fuel stations crammed with army pickups, shawarma stands doing good business or fit foreign men wearing sunglasses – were pretty much impossible to spot at high noon on a workday in Kherson.

One of the very few vehicles moving on July 11 was a Toyota Land Cruiser driven by Rabbi Iosif-Itzhak Wolff, Kherson’s Chief Rabbi and head of the city’s Jewish Community Chabad (JCC) assistance group.

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The chief rabbi of the Ukrainian city of Kherson, Rabbi Yosyp Wolf, takes a break visiting residents of the city in need of humanitarian aid. Kyiv Post photo by Stefan Korshak, July 10, 2023

Using a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and English, the Israeli-born Wolff told Kyiv Post that before the war he led a community of some 3,000 mostly secular Jewish families living in the city and surrounding communities, of whom, in the wake of war, liberation, and flooding, less than 1,000 are left.

His and the community’s main job these days, he said, is getting basic assistance to sustain life for Kherson residents probably unable to get it any other way.

Rabbi Yosyp Wolf, the chief rabbi of the Ukrainian city of Kherson, says that he visits 91-year-old Lidia Leonidivna, a member of his community. Volunteers from the local community deliver food, water and provide round-the-clock care for people in need. Kyiv Post photo by Stefan Korshak, July 10, 2023

Bela Polonska is one Kherson resident probably still alive because of grassroots assistance groups like the JCC. Bedridden and asleep during a Kyiv Post visit to her home, she is attended to 24/7 by a rotating five-member team supplied with food, medicine and drinking water.

Her caretaker Nataliya Livadina said that although the local government has not abandoned Kherson residents completely, the weak and infirm in the city depend on non-government support. In Polonska’s case, Livadina said, JCC workers saved her life by carrying her from her home near the waterfront to safety on high ground.

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During an afternoon food and water delivery to her home longtime Kherson resident and Holocaust survivor Rosa Mikhailvna Ariav, 86, was outspoken and by current Ukrainian standards deeply politically incorrect in her support of closer Ukrainian association with Russia. A retired emergency medical doctor with a successful career ending well before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ariav said the Ukrainian government shared responsibility for the war by needlessly confronting the Kremlin.

Dr. Roza Mykhailivna Ariav, a Holocaust survivor and retired emergency physician, speaks during an interview. She says that the German occupation of Kherson was worse than the Russian one. Kyiv post photo by Phil Ittner, July 10, 2023.

German occupation of Kherson and the corralling of Jews in a Kherson ghetto in 1941-43, was far worse than the recent Russian army occupation of the city when, Ariav said, Russian soldiers “left people alone.” She went on to praise the help she receives from Wolff and the JCC.

Kyiv Post in conversation with other Kherson residents heard accounts contradicting Ariav’s, telling of Russian troops’ looting homes, breaking into and living in apartments, arresting people for alleged pro-Ukrainian political views, beating civilians failing to follow orders quickly enough, and stealing automobiles at gunpoint. Some were Ariav’s neighbors.

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Wolff said the JCC concentrates on helping all members of its corps community but will help all comers as best it can, Jews, Muslims or Christians, no matter the recipient’s ethnicity or political beliefs. Other volunteer-led aid groups do the same thing, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in a June 17 statement said his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, a secular Jew, is because of his continued leadership of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion “not a Jew” and “a disgrace to the Jewish People.” In other statements, he has claimed Russian forces hit only military targets.

“Volodymyr Zelensky is a leader who set an example of courage to his people and the whole world… (he is) a hero not only of the Jewish people but also of the entire political Ukrainian nation, which, of course, includes Jews,” was the same day rejoinder statement from the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine to Putin’s June comments.

Russian artillery and missiles fired from the left bank of the Dnipro River, still smash into Kherson regularly. On July 11 a salvo crashed into the residential Sofiivsky district, turning a house to rubble, demolishing a garage and setting it on fire, blasting craters in sidewalks, and blowing out windows of a humanitarian aid office. No one was killed but four people were injured – among them a woman aged 68 and a child aged 8 – in that particular attack, an Emergency Situations Ministry statement said.

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Images of personal belongings destroyed by flooding that hit the Ukrainian city of Kherson after Russia destroyed a hydroelectric dam upstream of the city. Hanukkah lights and destroyed books are visible. Kyiv Post photo by Stefan Korshak, July 10, 2023

Video published by the Kherson regional military administration showed fragments of 122mm Grad rockets, a long-range, but highly inaccurate artillery system, scattered about the strike scene. On Tuesday across the city Russian artillery or rockets struck 52 times, a city statement said.

The fire exchanges are two-way, and by some measures, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) artillery appears sometimes to have an advantage. On July 10 and 11, Kyiv Post saw shell strikes from a long-range Ukrainian field piece or pieces systematically working over civilian and military structures on the far bank of the Dnipro. Intermittent firing took place day and night. One shell strike was observed by Kyiv Post to trigger a secondary explosion and a substantial fire. 

At one point, during a break in the on-and-off firing, Wolff fielded a telephone call from his mother. He told her he was working in Kherson and that she shouldn’t worry.

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Comments ( 1)

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I support
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We should have done more during the first invasion I agree. But all we can do is keep supporting and give all so that the Ukraine prevales. It bothers me that some people don't understand the importance of winning this war. To our shame and regret we underestimated the courageous resistance at the start of the war and the continuous courage happening as I write this. The destruction of Kerson and Bakmut and other city's shows that now is the time to defeat these assholes. They are dying for liberty and freedom and anybody who complains about the cost is ignorant to History and the present. If not stopped now this will not end until more cities are turned to dust. And radiation kills the world.

I support
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@I support, to clarify Russia is the assholes and the Ukrainians are fighting for liberty and freedom

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