Despite dashed hopes, some in the Ukrainian city of Kherson are refusing to leave
KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – Vladyslav Antoniuk was euphoric three months ago as he returned to his hometown of Kherson, on the day Ukrainian troops rolled back and cheering residents waved blue and yellow flags in celebration in the main square.
Retaking the only regional capital Russia captured during its invasion was the biggest triumph of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the second half of last year, raising hopes across the country and sending displaced people home.
But three months later, Ukraine’s advance has stalled and grim reality has set in. Russian soldiers, who retreated directly across the Dnipro River, were not pushed back any further and are pounding the city with artillery on a daily basis.
Many residents have now left for the second time, with encouragement from the region’s leaders.
Not Antoniuk, 46, who says he’s not going anywhere: “It’s my city. People help each other in their own way,” he said.
But Vasyl Nezgoda is not so sure. Two weeks ago, a Russian Grad rocket hit his home. He has moved in with a friend and is staying in town for the time being.
“But if the situation gets worse, I will leave.”
For eight months, residents endured what many describe as a brutal Russian occupation. The Ukrainian authorities are investigating hundreds of missing persons cases and cases of physical or sexual abuse of detainees by the former occupiers.
But high hopes that returning the city to Ukrainian control would bring normality have not materialized. Nowadays the central square is deserted. On Wednesday, Russian shells hit a bus stop in the city center, killing six people and injuring a dozen.
Officials estimate that only 50,000 people remain out of a pre-war population of 279,000, and they are now advising the rest to leave the city as long as the city remains within range of Russian guns across the river.
“Until we are within 30-40 kilometers of the enemy, it is better for people to walk to save their lives and health,” said Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the Kherson regional military administration, a position that conforms to martial law resembles governor.
Speaking to Reuters outside Kherson’s stately administration building, he missed several windows after nearby explosions shattered their glass. He said his administration is evacuating about 100 people a day on trains and buses from the city on a voluntary basis.
Many don’t get far. As the city of Kherson’s population dwindles, other Ukrainian-controlled areas further from the frontline are absorbing more people in the surrounding Kherson region, known as Ukraine’s fruitbasket.
The 39-year-old prokudin has only been in office since February 7, after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired a number of officials for saying he needed to fix internal problems. Prokudin previously headed the National Police Department of the Kherson region.
He faces a tough sell that is urging some holdouts to exit.
“We will stand here,” said Ihor Vlasenko, 60, who works for a heating company. “I’m not thinking of leaving.”
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Kherson, Ukraine; Editing by Peter Graff)