SNorthern Ukraine is a gray mass of brown, barren looking farmland in November. The bright greens and yellows of the fields have faded and the snow hasn’t fallen yet. But the good mood in the small town of Snihurivka was in stark contrast to the season.
Around the city’s bombed-out buildings, the Russian soldiers’ garbage heaps, and the streets littered with shrapnel tracks, groups of smiling, happy residents gathered to chat. When cars drove by, they waved and smiled. They described feelings of ecstasy at the sight of Ukrainian troops and debated the most appropriate insults for the Russian soldiers: should it be “pigs” or “beasts”, they asked themselves.
Snihurivka stood firmly on the front lines just a kilometer from Ukrainian positions and was recaptured by Ukrainian forces on Thursday. Russia’s defense ministry announced a tactical withdrawal of its forces from the south after Ukraine repeatedly destroyed its supply lines and ammunition depots.
The bursts of joy being brought to the newly reclaimed portion of southern territory stem from the hope instilled in residents by the long-discussed southern offensive announced first by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in late June and then again in late August. The Ukrainian armed forces took their first decisive steps in early October.
Unlike the northern regions of Ukraine, including areas near Kyiv, which were liberated while the country was overwhelmed by the scale of the invasion, or the Kharkiv region, which was retaken while the world looked the other way, the liberation of the The Kherson region of Ukraine was so hyped by authorities that it became a fixation for many Ukrainians, especially those who lived there.
“I have a radio — a battery-operated one,” said Sasha, a slight man in his sixties, who was stepping cautiously over a pile of sand in case the Russians had left mines below. “I would know [the Ukrainian army] came. We were just waiting.”
“I can’t tell you how it felt to see it [Ukrainian troops]. We sat without electricity and water for eight months,” said Olga Ivanovna, Sasha’s neighbor and friend. “We slept in our basements, fully clothed. Three months! We waited three months!”
Residents said they tried to keep in touch by any means necessary after their electricity was cut and Russian soldiers went door to door confiscating phones. Some had generators and could receive Ukrainian television; some managed to keep their phones and climbed abandoned five-story apartment blocks to get a signal.
Standing in front of her house and talking to friends, 65-year-old Vera Borisovna pointed to her empty flower bed and said brightly: “There is nothing left, we took them all to give to our boys.” Her voice trembled , when she spoke about it At that moment, Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.
“I can’t stop smiling because there hasn’t been a laugh in eight months,” said Borisovna, whose home was between Russian positions and who once had to duck behind her fence to avoid shrapnel pockmarking her street. She said she kept a diary because it was the only way she could keep track of which date was without power.
Hardly any of the residents of Snihurivka left at the beginning of the invasion or after the occupation, they said. They were either too old or didn’t have enough money or both. They identified themselves as hostages, dodging the incoming scatter fire while trying to find supplies and dodging the Russian soldiers.
The hardship fostered a sense of community and solidarity that residents said drew them together. For example, the head of the city’s market, Oleksandr Shevachuk, traveled to Kherson with his wife Valentyna at his own risk to buy groceries for the city’s only shop, 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 to see the Ukrainians returning, would probably bear the scars of occupation for the rest of their lives.
Volodymyr Perepilnitsia, 58, was arrested three times by the Russians, beaten, tortured and routinely intimidated. A former Ukrainian army captain and police officer, his name was on a Russian list of potential pro-Ukrainian troublemakers.
When the Russians first took him in for interrogation, they accused him of being a “knocker,” colloquially known as a spy. The second time, he was kidnapped because he refused to accept their humanitarian aid, after which he said they ransacked his home as punishment.
The third time he was arrested was for the disappearance of a 20-year-old Ukrainian soldier whom he saw being badly beaten by Russian troops the day before. Perepilnitsia said the soldier escaped on a moped with his wife at night.
“They kept me in isolation for five straight nights and beat me,” said Perepilnitsia, who said the Russians used the local police station as an interrogation center. “You beat a young man to death. I know because I heard it. I was in the next cell and heard them hit him and then I heard them drag him out.”
Perepilnitsia said he didn’t know where the body was buried, but said “many” men had disappeared since the Russians took control in March.
Before the Russians left Snihurivka, which according to locals happened within a few hours, they planted something that will likely be a future misery for the town’s residents.
“All fields are mined,” Perepilnitsia said, pointing to the land surrounding the city. “A farm boy went out to see the new cemetery yesterday and blew himself up. No one has gone to steal their body yet. 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 parts” of the area and left explosives behind before withdrawing.
“Anyway, you see what they’ve been doing here — pigs,” Perepilnitsia said, gesturing toward the charred buildings and sea of rubbish that surrounded them.
Perepilnitsia was accompanied by his Jack Russell puppy, who was peeing on car tires. “Patron!” he exclaimed. Patron is the name of the Jack Russell that Kiev rescuers trained to find mines in the early days of the war and is now famous across the country. It seems that despite their isolation and suffering, the residents of Snihorivka followed the war along with the rest of Ukraine.