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Amid joy in Kherson, a humanitarian disaster looms


Ukrainian civilians and soldiers rejoice over the liberation of Kherson, after Russia formally announced it had retreated from the city, in southern Ukraine on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

By Andrew E. Kramer, Marc Santora and Katie Rogers


Ukrainian soldiers worked to secure the city of Kherson on Saturday and battled Russian forces on its outskirts, the military said, one day after Ukraine’s special forces entered the southern port city to rapturous cheers from residents who had endured months of Russian occupation.


Despite the Russian withdrawal, the Ukrainian military’s intelligence agency said Saturday that there remained Russian soldiers in fixed defensive positions and that it was unclear whether they would fight, flee or surrender.


As Ukrainian forces entered the city, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, including a lack of water and electricity, became apparent. Nevertheless, for a second day, residents poured into the streets to celebrate.


The jubilant sounds of cheering and car horns mingled with occasional explosions from incoming artillery on the city’s outskirts. The military also said Ukrainian forces were clearing mines and explosives left behind by the departing Russian forces, and searching for any Russian soldiers who might be hiding in abandoned homes.


As night fell and the city went dark, blacked out by electrical cables blown up during the fighting, a party that had begun Friday in the city’s central square went on.


Ukrainian songs banned under the occupation blared from a speaker. People cheered and sang along, dancing to the light of car headlights and flashlights. Couples embraced and swayed to a slow song by Ukrainian band Oceans of Elza, marking a little pocket of hope in a war that is not over.


Kherson, an urban hub with a prewar population in the hundreds of thousands, is mostly without heat, water, electricity, medicines and cellphone service. One Ukrainian official called it “a humanitarian catastrophe.” And Saturday, reports of explosions at a critical dam roughly 40 miles to the northeast cast a growing shadow over the celebration.


Looming to the east are formations of Russian forces and their artillery, mostly still intact following their very publicized recent retreat. Kremlin-installed officials who had been occupying Kherson announced Saturday that they had set up a new administrative capital in a seaside resort town, Henichesk, about 110 miles deep behind Russian lines.


The sudden change, prompted by Russia’s searing loss on the battlefield, comes less than a month and a half after Moscow moved to annex the region, with its capital in Kherson city.


The city’s residents were still processing the fast-moving events Saturday. Only a day before, they had been hiding their Ukrainian flags from Russian soldiers. Now, they wrapped themselves in their flag’s blue and gold and hugged Ukrainian soldiers in the streets.


“People walk on the streets and congratulate each other,” said Serhiy, a retiree who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “It’s just a holiday!”


One Ukrainian special forces soldier, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, described the moment as a burst of emotions. He said he was thinking of how much work had been done in the past eight months to make the events of the past two days happen and of how many soldiers had died in the process.


Another Ukrainian army soldier, a foreign volunteer, said their arrival to the city was like “Paris, 1944.”


Amid the celebrating, however, the daunting scale of the humanitarian crisis in the area was coming into focus Saturday. Many people in Kherson have no heat, power or running water. Food and medicine are in short supply. Ukrainian military officials said the city was not yet safe for a large-scale humanitarian relief effort.


Further adding to the growing list of humanitarian concerns, Kremlin-aligned Russian news outlets published a video Saturday purporting to show a large explosion in the area of the Kakhivska hydroelectric power plant, which is a part of the Kakhova dam complex, roughly 40 miles northeast of Kherson.


It was unclear when the blast took place, but local residents said they had heard a large explosion Friday afternoon.


U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, expressed cautious optimism Saturday over Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson, calling it a “big moment” for the Ukrainian forces. He also reiterated that the Biden administration would not push for a diplomatic end to the war.


A rift in the U.S. government spilled into public view this week as Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began pressing for Ukrainian forces to consider capitalizing on their momentum by negotiating an end to the fighting before winter sets in. Biden’s advisers, including Sullivan, have publicly pushed back on any suggestion that they should pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to cede territory to Russian invaders.


“Ukraine is the party of peace in this conflict, and Russia is the party of war,” Sullivan said. “Russia invaded Ukraine. If Russia chose to stop fighting in Ukraine and left, it would be the end of the war. If Ukraine chose to stop fighting and give up, it would be the end of Ukraine.”


He said that what happened in Kherson had not changed the administration’s position, partly because Moscow has continued to make claims about annexing territory.


Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said some Russian soldiers in and around Kherson city were still actively engaged with Ukrainian forces. There were also reports, she said, of Russian soldiers surrendering to the Ukrainians or changing into civilian clothes and hiding in apartments.


“How many forgotten soldiers remain, it is very difficult to say at this point,” she said in an interview with Freedom TV, a Russian-language channel in Ukraine that focuses on broadcasting abroad.


She added that Ukrainian forces were “a stone’s throw away” from Russian forces that were fortifying positions on the other side of the Dnieper River, making them vulnerable to artillery fire. Ukraine’s military also reported fighting in towns and villages outside Kherson city, including around the endangered dam in the city of Nova Kakhovka.

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