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Despite being freed from Russian occupation, Kherson is attacked regularly


It's been one year since Ukrainian forces freed the southern city of Kherson from Russian occupation. The liberation led Ukraine and its Western allies to believe even more territory could soon be freed. But now a second counteroffensive has stalled, and Russia attacks Kherson nearly every day. Here's NPR's Joanna Kakissis.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: There's an eerie quiet in the maternity ward where Dr. Oksana Tomchenko used to deliver Kherson's babies.

OKSANA TOMCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "Before the war, we used to welcome a hundred babies a month," she says. "Nowadays, it seems more like 10." More than 70% of Kherson's pre-war population of about 300,000 has fled. And in the past year, Russian missiles have struck this maternity hospital twice. Tomchenko was there both times.

TOMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) The whole district was under shelling. And one of the explosions was too loud. And I felt like the building shaken. And I looked outside, and I saw the smoke, and I realized that the building, the hospital was hit.

KAKISSIS: The doctor says Russian forces have hit practically every hospital in the city.

TOMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) They know for sure the civilian facilities, civilian infrastructure. I just can't explain why they are doing this. This is just cruel.

KAKISSIS: Amazingly, she says, she doesn't know of anyone killed in hospitals during those strikes. But in the rest of the Kherson region, Russian attacks have killed more than 400 people, including 200 in the city, in the past year since liberation. Hundreds more have been injured.

We walk down a hospital hall to Tomchenko's office, and when she unlocks the door, we see folded clothes and jars of homemade pickled tomatoes amid the examining tables and bottles of medicine.

TOMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) Yes, I live here. This is my office. And also, this is my, like, apartment.

KAKISSIS: Oh, my gosh. You live in your office.

TOMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) Since the beginning of the year.

KAKISSIS: It's a short drive from the hospital to the neighborhood she moved out of. We can see the Dnipro River in the distance. Her neighbor, Viktor Vereskun, says everyone used to picnic along the riverbanks before the Russians invaded. Do you ever go near the river?

VIKTOR VERESKUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "No, no. It's super dangerous."

The Russians are less than a mile away on the other side, always shooting. Vereskun calls the riverbank a kill zone. There's been no electricity in the neighborhood since a massive dam upstream was destroyed this summer, causing catastrophic flooding. Vereskun watches a neighbor sweep the sidewalks outside their apartment building. Then he's interrupted.


VERESKUN: (Through interpreter) That was the beginning of shelling.

KAKISSIS: Do you hear that all the time?

VERESKUN: (Through interpreter) Yes, every day.


VERESKUN: (Through interpreter) No, no, it's closer.

KAKISSIS: It's getting closer.


KAKISSIS: You can hear more explosions a short walk away, where a white-bearded naturalist named Mykhailo Podhaynyi sits on a park bench.

Aren't you worried? Listening to these explosions, aren't you worried?

MYKHAILO PODHAYNYI: (Through interpreter) We got used to it.

KAKISSIS: Next to the park is the local history museum where he works. Podhaynyi says he stayed in Kherson to take care of it. "Usually after the first explosion," he says, "people get in their cars and they drive away."

The deputy head of the local military administration, Anton Yefanov, is nearby.

ANTON YEFANOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He's worried about the coming winter, and he says there aren't enough generators for everyone. He expects the Russians to strike Kherson's already damaged power grid.

YEFANOV: (Through interpreter) Our main task is to keep the situation in the city on the same level it is now and not to let it get worse.

TOMCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Back at the hospital, Dr. Oksana Tomchenko takes us downstairs to the bomb shelter, which a team of workers is now expanding.

TOMCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: The doctor points to new beds and medicine stockpiles. It's almost like they're building a whole new wing downstairs.

TOMCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "Of course, we want the war to end soon," she says, "but..." - and she stops there. She does not want to finish that sentence.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kherson.

(SOUNDBITE OF BNMO AND BARONSKI'S "ALL THAT I GOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.