Kherson Region, Ukraine—Seeing new wooden planks on the roof of a ruined house was like a small ray of sunshine amid the ruins of the village of Myrn.
“One at the very beginning of the war [Ukrainian] The soldier made a stupid Tik Tok video on the streets outside our house,” Tatiana, a middle-aged local resident, told The Daily Beast. She picked up her phone to show a video of a smiling young man in military uniform bragging about his unit’s success in pushing back the Russians.
Almost immediately afterwards, Russian artillery opened fire on her property, thinking that Ukrainian soldiers were sheltering inside.
Ukraine’s operational security is tighter now, but Tatiana’s fury is still palpable. For six months, the village has been on the front line of the Ukrainian battle for the Kherson region, which was captured by Russian forces in the first weeks of the offensive. Tatiana lived in the bombing with only her dog for company. The poor animal’s fur was torn—it shell-shelled, and barked its head at anyone who took a step toward it.
Life in Kherson has not yet returned to normal. Not only are residents still at risk of Russian shelling, but the fields are littered with mines, abandoned and unexploded ordnance, and bobby traps set by retreating Russian troops.
On our way back from Snihurivka, another former frontline village, we passed a Ukrainian tank lying on its side in a roadside ditch. It was destroyed by a grenade explosion within 15 minutes. Its tracks fell off, its chassis cracked, and its fuel leaked. Its crew sat atop the corpse, terrified and trembling but miraculously unharmed.
Anthony Connell, a mine clearance expert at Swiss demining company FSD, predicted that the Ukrainians would need “decades of peace” to clear the country of explosive remnants of war. Since 2016, he has worked in the Donbass region, which was—and still is—one of the most polluted regions in the world.
Now, the damage done to the whole country is indescribable. Even in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, where battles have been fought for more than a month, many areas are too dangerous to walk. Connell estimated that dozens of civilians have been killed by explosives in those areas since they were liberated in April.
Compounding the problems of ordinary people like Tatiana was the severe financial crisis created by the war. Tatyana’s brother-in-law, who did not want to be named, said the local authorities had offered financial assistance but nothing had materialized so far.
“When can we stay here? It’s all about money. We have very little,” he told The Daily Beast. They will rebuild as much as they can before the worst of the cold weather hits. They plan to stay with extended family in the Mykolaiv area before returning to their village in the spring.
It is the start of the harshest winter in Ukraine’s recent history, with civilians struggling with widespread heat and water shortages after a series of Russian missile attacks crippled the country’s power infrastructure.
As with many wartime privations, the Ukrainians adapted as best they could. Walking the streets of any major city, you can hear thousands of diesel generators being imported to power local homes and businesses.
Local authorities and civil society organizations have set up thousands of “invincibility stations” in schools, public buildings and railway stations across Ukraine. These are tents with heaters, electricity stations to charge devices and facilities for tea, coffee and sandwiches. But these are little more than a band-aid in what has turned out to be the most difficult period since the full-scale occupation began in February.
When The Daily Beast visited the Kherson region last Thursday, hundreds of cars were streaming from the entrance to the city of Kherson, hundreds of people fleeing Russian army shelling, now entrenched over the Dnipro River a mile or so away.
It was a far cry from the jubilation of last week, when a triumphant President Volodymyr Zelenskyy entered the main city square filled with jubilant citizens singing patriotic songs and waving Ukrainian flags.
Since then, at least 32 civilians have been killed in Russian attacks, the highest of any region in the country. The city was completely without electricity, and local authorities insisted that anyone able to evacuate for the winter would do so.
What is happening in Kherson is a microcosm of the state of Ukraine as a whole.
There is a sad irony, because on the military front, Ukraine’s armed forces are performing better than even the most optimistic predictions made before the war. The Ukrainians recently launched two well-executed and successful counter-offensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, allowing them to liberate territory, including the only regional capital, captured by the Russians.
Meanwhile, the Russians were unable to accomplish even their most ambitious war goals. In the Donetsk region, the Russian army and the Wagner mercenary group constantly attack the small city of Bakhmut, making increasing territorial gains at the cost of high casualties.
About a five-minute drive down the road from Tatiana’s place are the ruins of Russian trenches, littered with abandoned weapons and ammunition. Crawling through the debris for food was a ginger tabby cat with green eyes that jumped into our vehicle and refused to leave. We took him with us to Kyiv.
Back in the capital, famous singer Anna Kudryashova said she hopes to see winter at home no matter what happens. “I’m with my family,” she told The Daily Beast, “which is the most important and warm thing to me.”