The retreating Russians left the desperate civilians of Kherson under constant shelling

With no electricity or water and endless shootings, the freed Ukrainians are not ready to celebrate Putin's decline, as Bel Trew of Novoleksandrivka in Kherson reports.

the day was like “Armageddon”, said Serhiy who, along with a local soldier patrolling the front-line village, scrambled for cover from the oncoming fire-jagged explosion.

There was a tense pause before another, louder explosion tore through the air behind them. Crouching beside the partially destroyed post office, the two men began calculating the distance and direction of the fire.

This is the remote village of Novooleksandrivka in the southern oblast of Kherson. The city is located on the west bank of the Dnipro river, which divides the region in two. It was being fired upon by Russian troops located just a few miles away on the other side of the water.

Many of the once deserted towns and hamlets in this area were also targeted by Russian positions about 20 miles south. There, another front line rages around the occupied regional capital – a battle Ukraine has fought so hard for that Russia has announced a major withdrawal.

But in Novooleksandrivka, which has no access to water or electricity, celebrating any retreat is premature. Heavy gunshots echoed through the air and the pale ground.

“There used to be 1,000 people living in this village, and now there are a few hundred,” Serhiy said, explaining how the city limped through a brutal seven-month occupation and even an “annexation referendum” by Russia.

“Every day there is shooting, mortars, artillery, drones. We had seven hits this morning. It's getting worse."

The southern oblast of Kherson is littered with the remains of once occupied and now destroyed Ukrainian towns and villages: the scars from some of the war's fiercest battles.

That's because of how important the region is to President Putin and his invasion of the country launched in February.

It was one of the first targets of Moscow's forces as they passed through the Ukrainian countryside swallowing towns in the neighboring Zaporzhizia oblast, before moving west into Kherson.

The regional capital Kherson – located on the western edge of the Dnipro about 30 miles south of Novooleksandrivka – is one of the most valuable advantages of the ongoing Russian invasion and the last remaining regional center captured during this Kremlin-held war. After a series of referendums, President Putin held an "annexation" victory ceremony in Moscow for Kherson and other regions in September.

But on Wednesday, in the face of continued Ukrainian attacks, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson as well as all positions they held on the west bank of the Dnipro river.

This marks a potentially devastating and embarrassing setback for the Kremlin which has had to withdraw from the areas around Kyiv and Kharkiv in the northeast.

The televised announcement of the withdrawal - the culmination of weeks of a well-publicized "evacuation" from the city - was met with skeptical caution by Ukrainian politicians and soldiers.

They told The Independent that while they believe the Russians should withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro, as their supply lines are cut off, Russian troops are still stationed inside the city with additional reserves waiting in the region to carry out some sort of attack. ambush.

Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky, told The Independent that, until the Ukrainian flag was installed over the administrative building in the city of Kherson, everything Russia said was an "information trap".

He later warned on Twitter that Russia would turn Kherson into a "city of the dead" by filling its streets with landmines while firing at it from positions they still hold on the east bank of the river.

And soldiers patrolling the recently liberated towns of Kherson said they expected shelling in places like Novooleksandrivka to worsen as Russia stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian positions while trying to lure Ukraine too far ahead.

“This is a military trick. Expect loud shootings," said a soldier in the liberated city, who could not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Civilians in the area agreed.

In Arkhanhel's'ke, a village west of Novooleksandrivka, which is about 15 km from the Russian position south of Kherson, residents struggle without water, electricity or gas. Stranded by buildings gouged by shootings, residents describe torture, kidnapping and murder under a seven-month occupation and then life trapped on one of the most vicious front lines.

Russia has repeatedly denied committing crimes in Ukraine and accuses Kyiv of committing atrocities to win international support.

But Valentin, 57, who collects humanitarian aid by bicycle, said his cousin had been detained and tortured in the basement under a central block of flats commanded by Russia. He said they suspected he was helping the Ukrainian military because he was trying to climb a hill to get a cell phone network to contact his family outside the city.

"They suspect whoever went there and will take them for questioning," Valentin added.

"They beat people and even used chisels under people's nails."

Mykola, 60, a railway worker, whose son is currently trapped in the town of Kherson, said two family friends in the village, a husband and wife - Valentin, 56, and Larissa, 50 - were found shot dead in the basement of their home. Residents suspect Larissa was raped before she was killed, he added grimly.

Echoing others within the city, Mykola said living under the brutality of the Russian army and knowing how important Kherson was to their invasion, it felt "too early to celebrate" or believe news of the withdrawal from the regional capital.

"Until there is official news that Kherson is released, and we see Ukrainian troops inside the city, we will not welcome this news," he added.

Like others in the wider Kherson oblast, his 33-year-old son and grandchildren are trapped inside the city of Kherson. His son - who declined to be named for security reasons - tried three times to flee to Ukrainian-held territory but was shot by Russian snipers and eventually surrendered.

Mykola said from the brief call he had with his son, the situation in the regional capital had become increasingly grim.

"He told me that there is no electricity, there is no water, half of the city's infrastructure is gone and they don't have proper internet," he continued.

There were reports that Russian flags had been taken down from the city's administrative buildings, and there were signs of Russian military personnel previously moving into the apartments of evacuated residents. But Mykola said his son wasn't sure there was a full recall.

Meanwhile, civilians are under pressure to flee to Russian-controlled areas including Crimea. But there, according to his son, they forced Russian passports on Ukrainian citizens and then conscripted men of combat age. (Moscow denies this).

"That's why he stayed in Kherson," Mykola added with a desperate shrug.

"I'm very worried about him. I was hoping maybe they would arrange a green corridor to get it out. But that's all I can hope for until full liberation actually happens. "

This echoes other reports The Independent has heard from residents still inside Russian-controlled Kherson. In a settlement east of the city of Kherson, a man who spoke to The Independent via an encrypted app explained how Ukrainians were forced to accept Russian passports. He claims social support for those displaced from other parts of the country, and the right to buy property, is only granted to holders of Russian passports.

"While there are no jobs, everything has just stopped, prices continue to rise," he added.

Back in Novooleksandrivka, residents used the pause between gunfire to try to organize the delivery of water via fire trucks. For them, the coming winter is their main concern.

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