Mines, torture and murder: what the Russians did in Kherson

It was 6am15 in the morning and the streets of Mykolaiv, in the south of Ukraine, were deserted. The curfew ended minutes, but few had left the house that Monday, 11 of November.

Dozens of cars identified with signs “TV” or “press” they began to arrive at a public parking lot surrounded by pine trees. BBC, Al Jazeera, NHK, Guardian, La Republica, El País… there were media representatives from almost every nation. This was the meeting point set by the Ukrainian authorities for the departure of a convoy towards Kherson.

The city had been liberated three days ago. The Russians reportedly withdrew because they were no longer able to maintain the logistical lines needed to supply their troops. The Ukrainians used Himars rocket launchers to hit bridges, ammunition depots and Russian bases in systematic attacks.

As the city was the only Russian position west of the Dnipro River (which is a kilometer wide), it was very difficult for Moscow to replenish it after the attacks.

Even so, the Russian withdrawal took everyone by surprise.

The Ukrainians rallied 479 a thousand of your best troops to take the city . The Russians defended it with thousand. If they had stayed, Kyiv would have had many casualties in house-to-house combat, where the Ukrainians could not use artillery in order not to hurt their own population.

But withdrawal without a fight does not match the doctrinal profile of Moscow. Possibly, now the Russians will lose these soldiers on another battlefront that is more difficult to defend. Perhaps they are trying to buy time to receive reinforcements. We probably won’t know anytime soon.

Censorship of the press

Back in Mykolaiv, the Ukrainian authorities placed between 150 and 200 journalists on five buses. The alleged reason was security, but many complained about Kyiv’s control of journalistic activity. I was among the disgruntled group. But it was the only way to get into Kherson.

Incidentally, Ukraine’s Parliament is voting this month on laws designed to censor the press. The country is already under martial law and opposition parties to the government have been driven underground, with the argument that they are supporting the Russians.

Why is this important?

The background of this war is a clash between democracy, represented by Ukraine, and Russia’s autocracy. President Vladimir Putin seems not to want in his neighboring country an example of how democracy can flourish and function in a country that was once dominated by the former Soviet Union and even had a system of government similar to that of post-Soviet Russia.

That is, the success of Ukraine as a country is a threat to the Russian autocratic regime. Imagine what will become of Putin’s system of power if the Russians decide to really want democracy? Warning to readers who immediately thought of the issue of NATO (Western military alliance) advancing on countries that Russia believed to be its own and in strategic depth for the defense of Russian territory: please return to the February and March War Games columns – we have already analyzed at that time Moscow’s arguments, let’s move on.

The point now is that, by putting the opposition underground and trying to censor the press, the Ukrainian government is closer to the Russian model than to the western democracies.

I asked this question this Friday (18) to the editor-in-chief of the Odesa Daily newspaper, Leonid Shtekel, to one of the directors of the Union of Ukrainian Journalists, Yuriy Rabotin, and to the founder of Izbirkon newspaper, Anatoly Boyko. They quickly reminded me that Ukraine will have elections in 2022 and the people are free to choose a new government. Putin has been for more than years ruling Russia.

“But deep down there is danger. This law is very dangerous, we cannot let our country abandon democracy or Russia will win. This censorship law hasn’t been passed yet, let’s hope it isn’t”, Shtekel told me.

Road to Kherson

The city of Mykolaiv is kilometers from Kherson, but the trip took two hours. What initially draws attention on the road are the Ukrainian fortifications.

These are checkpoints similar to the police stations we see in Brazil, strategically distributed along the road. But instead of road cones, you can see barricades two meters high, made of concrete blocks and sandbags with holes that serve as loopholes for weapons. Everything is covered by camouflage nets.

Trench lines stretch for a hundred or 67 meters into adjacent fields and plantations, forming a line of defense perpendicular to the road.

They are intended to provide shelter to soldiers both from fire from artillery and against eventual enemy advances along the highway. Next to these fortifications, there are large extensions of minefields.

The soldiers checked the documents of the few drivers who were going to Kherson. Most traffic is trucks and military vehicles. In the opposite direction, damaged war tanks were towed on carts to Mykolaiv.

After we won about 15734 or 150 kilometers, the road began to pass through villages already in the Kherson oblast (state). I saw on the runway the characteristic circular marks of light mortar explosions and cluster bombs. After a few months circulating around these parts, it is already possible to distinguish. They do not break the asphalt layer, but they throw lethal shrapnel at those nearby and leave characteristic marks on the ground.

In the plantations beside the road, from time to time it was possible to see an unexploded rocket and half buried in the ground.

Virtually all the houses in the villages had their walls dotted with marks of shots, and most of them already roofless. All gas stations along the way were completely destroyed. It was in these villages that Ukrainians and Russians fought the biggest fights for Kherson. Today, few people still live there.

Further along the road, there were incinerated carcasses of armored vehicles and, occasionally, buses had to travel in the opposite direction, as the road ahead had been destroyed. Now I saw the marks of stronger explosions, of heavy artillery and rockets, which opened craters in the asphalt.

A few kilometers before entering the city, the access bridge was dynamited and the entire area around around was mined. This forced the delegation to take a neighboring road.

In a very poor village, which seems to have escaped the destruction of the war, residents waved to journalists and military. Their houses were a mixture of wood, clay and masonry. Each with a plantation on the side. They seemed to have been there for centuries, fortunately worn down little by little by time and not hit by the fire of machine guns or Russian artillery.

After crossing the dynamited bridge, we were back on the main road and in a few kilometers we saw a portico with Greek columns and the name “Херсон”, Kherson in the Cyrillic alphabet. Very fitting, as the city was founded by the ancient Greeks and not the Russians.

On the immediate periphery of the city, there were some buildings ruined by artillery. But when you enter the urban limits, the feeling is to enter a ghost town, not a destroyed city. There were some buildings hit by artillery, with floors on fire. But they were a minority. The town appeared well preserved.

The Ukrainians are said to have avoided bombarding Kherson with artillery barrages. Russian bases were destroyed with American Himars rockets that, in theory, have precision in reaching the targets. That was the recipe for not losing Ukrainian civilian lives. This also preserved the support of the local population for Kyiv.

The joy of liberation

The buses entered the main square of the city, where a few hundred people celebrated the liberation. We got off the buses and found three wooden tables with microphones and soldiers in special forces uniforms guarding the perimeter. One of the journalists solved the riddle quickly: Volodymyr Zelensky is here.

The president appeared smiling soon after, dressed in an olive green coat. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in person. There was undoubtedly a scenic factor in the situation. But he was not in front of the outsider comedian who became the president of Ukraine.

In good physical shape, with decisive steps and firm speech, the figure of Zelensky commanded respect. Especially since it’s out there in the open, in plain sight. Series of artillery gun fire and loud shell explosions could be heard every five or ten minutes. The noise was disturbing, but no one sought shelter. Fighting was taking place on the edge of town and the square appeared to be within range of Russian artillery. The sound of the explosions mixed with the screams of the crowd in support of Zelensky.

O presidente ucraniano, Volodymyr Zelensky, em visita à cidade de Kherson na última segunda-feira (14). Foto: EFE/EPA/Presidência da UcrâniaO presidente ucraniano, Volodymyr Zelensky, em visita à cidade de Kherson na última segunda-feira (14). Foto: EFE/EPA/Presidência da UcrâniaO presidente ucraniano, Volodymyr Zelensky, em visita à cidade de Kherson na última segunda-feira (14). Foto: EFE/EPA/Presidência da UcrâniaUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting the city of Kherson last Monday (). Photo: EFE/EPA/Ukrainian Presidency


“This is the beginning of the end of the war. Our army is advancing step by step over the temporarily occupied territory”, he said.

“How do I feel? I’m happy. We are in Kherson. Look at the crowd, I think that’s the answer. We cannot prepare people’s reactions. They were waiting for the Ukrainian army.”

“What will be the next city?”, asked a fellow journalist.

“It will not be Moscow”, replied the president, eliciting laughs from the communicators. “We are not interested in the territories of other countries.”

After Zelensky left, I went to talk to people in the square. Randomly, I started talking to a lady from 50 years old, called Olga Mykailona. She said that the Russians tried to impose their culture on the people of Kherson, advertising on TV, replacing Ukrainian products with Russian ones on market shelves, changing the school curriculum and even imposing the use of their currency, the ruble.

“Nothing worked for them. For example, there weren’t enough rubles circulating and they had to accept that we went back to using the Ukrainian hryvnia.”

“I know Brazil through telenovelas, you are a very happy people, keep it up. Never enter a war”, she said.

At the end of the press trip, my colleagues and I wondered how Zelensky was not hit by the Russians in his frequent public appearances.

We conjectured that the constant explosions we heard in Kherson came from the sound of the Ukrainian guns firing at the Russians. The city center would probably be out of range of Kremlin artillery, we debated.

A few minutes later, some journalist had the unfortunate idea of ​​asking the trip organizers to stop by the Greek portico on the street. entrance to the city – to take selfies.

The military agreed and it was at this moment that artillery shells began to fall near the buses. The vehicle he was in shook with the impact of a nearby explosion and many passengers panicked and shouted for the driver to accelerate quickly.

“If we are within artillery range here, Zelensky was also there in the square ”, I thought to myself, while editing a report for RedeTV! on my computer!.

No journalist was injured, fortunately.

Trail of crimes

That wasn’t the only trip I made to Kherson. The Ukrainian military again took journalists to the region – this time, without stopping for selfies.

We visited one village where there was clash and now ukrainians were searching in fields and plantations by land mines, grenades and rockets that did not explode.

With metal detectors, they were advancing slowly on the ground. At the sound of the device, they knelt down and began to carefully prick the earth using sticks. Dismantling is a slow process.

In less than a week, Ukrainian specialists had collected and defused more than 5 thousand mines in Kherson and the perspective is that the number will increase exponentially. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, in of February, more than 150 thousand were found throughout Ukraine.

Once the war is over, it will still take at least another six years to find and remove them all.

As brutal as it sounds, the use mines is not a crime, but a tactic to slow the advance of enemy troops – and make them easier targets for snipers.

But torture and murder are war crimes.

We were taken to a Kherson City Hall building that was converted by the Russians into a prison. The rooms were barred and turned into cells. When we got there, they looked more like garbage dumps. Activists, journalists, members of the territorial defense forces and suspected of collaborating with the Ukrainian army were held there.

A man who introduced himself only as Maxim was one of the victims of the Russians, according to the prosecutor of the City. “They would put a cloth bag over my head and give me electric shocks. They wanted to know if I had helped the Ukrainian forces”, said the man.

The tortures allegedly took place in the building’s garage. According to the local prosecutor’s office, until now cases have been documented. Many “suspects” were released after weeks or months in prison. Others did not resist the mistreatment, according to witnesses.

We were then taken by the Ukrainians to a forest, where men with the uniforms and equipment of the experts in demining were examining the ground. I pointed my camera at a small group and positioned myself to make a video narration about the removal of landmines.

I then noticed that on a tree trunk there was a cross , photos and dried flowers. A lady approached us in tears with a bouquet of dried flowers. “Some resident of the region had stepped on a mine”, I thought.

I had not understood the instructions of a military man minutes before on the bus – all played in Russian. Gradually, I began to suspect that I was not in front of a minefield, but an improvised cemetery, full of shallow graves.

“When the Russians discovered the residents who participated in the territorial defense forces, arrested them and brought them to this is where they were executed,” said a police officer. “A priest who lived in the region was burying the bodies. We are talking about eight months of occupation. Have already been dug up only here”, he said.

In one week, Ukrainians identified more thangraves and this number also tends to increase.

The Ukrainian army has yet to liberate hundreds of villages and towns in four oblasts still partially occupied by Russians.

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