Sofia has listened to the radio again. The signal is not good, an intermittent screeching makes it difficult to understand what the announcers are saying, but that matters little to this 93-year-old woman who has spent much of the past eight months in silence in Kherson. Her solitude was only interrupted by Lilia, a social worker who, even on the hardest days, did not stop visiting her. She brought him what she could find in the few markets there were, she cooked for him, bathed him… In short, she helped him in everything that this doctor in biological sciences could not do on her own.
Not because her mind prevents her – she’s perfectly lucid; she worked as a university professor until she was 87 years old- but because her body no longer responds to it. “The radio was Russian, and I refused. I didn’t watch television either,” Sofía confesses. We found her sitting in her reading chair. In her bedroom, by the window, one of the few places in the house that has good access to natural light. A luxury in the city where there is no electricity.
The example is the accumulation of people, old and young, around the electric generators that have been installed in different points, including the central square where the members of the fire brigade erect a new giant tent with tables inside, the third that there is in this rectangular space presided over by the regional administration building and which is in turn the heart of the city. “Everyone wants to talk to their relatives outside. Many are deciding whether to stay or go,” says Alexander, a firefighter who returned to Kherson a few days ago. “I am very happy, but people are very tired,” he admits.
Sofia doesn’t think about it for a minute, nothing will get her out of Kherson. Her two sons have told him that they will come for her, but he refuses. “I am from Kherson,” she says, later acknowledging that she is a brave woman. And she has to be to be willing to spend the winter without heat, water or electricity in a city where it is already extremely cold for her. “I dedicated myself to reading some old newspapers and books from my library”, she says when she is asked what she did in those months when she did not turn on the radio.
“It doesn’t matter that there is no electricity or water, there is freedom,” says Lilia
“I have endured these months with patience, it is the second war I have lived through,” he says with some pride. He also tells, and with pride, that he did not have to see the Russians. They never went to inspect her building and she never went down the four floors of her building, but they did frequently attack nearby buildings. “And the explosions never stopped,” she adds. Hours after we left her, a missile fell near the train station, and very close to her house.
Lilia had gone to bring him a box that she picked up in the central square, where dozens of initiatives distribute aid among the inhabitants. Some give hot food, others coffee, others provide medical support and others distribute boxes of food, like the one Lilia has collected. In it there is sugar, rice, chocolate, pasta, a can of corn… “This will be enough for me to cook for several weeks,” says the 58-year-old woman, who celebrates that the Ukrainian forces are back. “It doesn’t matter that there is no electricity or water, there is freedom,” she says.
He remembers that every time he saw the Russians go by on the street, in their caravans, he looked for a way to hide or look the other way. Many people avoided stepping on the street, at least they only did it quickly, but she had no other option than to walk it to visit Sofía and other elderly women that she has under her care. She thus witnessed how the city changed.
Many stores closed. The purchase could only be made with rubles. The billboards were filled with Russian propaganda. Some of them can still be seen in the city where the authorities have done everything possible to erase any Russian traces. “We are Russians and Ukrainians, one people” or “Russia is here forever,” she reads. In his place, banners have been displayed with the sketch of the map of Ukraine and slogans such as “Ukraine will win”, “Kherson, a heroic city”. Among them are some advertisements that, ironically, promote hotels or tourist programs in the region.
“For me the scariest day was the day I woke up and saw through the window that the Russians were in the city. All the problems that came later were not as scary as that moment”, says Lilia. She knows she’s lucky. She knows many families that had problems during the eight months of occupation. One of them is Olga Shishkova, 60, who was lining up yesterday to claim a phone card that was distributed free of charge. Many of the inhabitants of Kherson were left disconnected from the Ukrainian mobile network.
The Russians are on the other side of the river and explosions are part of the routine. “My daughter suffers from panic attacks every night,” says Dimitri
“I had no choice but to have the Russian card, it was the only way I could communicate with my daughter-in-law, who lives in Crimea. This is how it happened to many of us ”, justifies this woman who says that she does not leave Kherson until her brother appears. The last thing she knows about him is that he was injured, taken to a hospital, and lost track of him from there. He lived in Posad Prokrovsk, a town northwest of Kherson that came into Russian hands at the start of the war; he joined as a volunteer in the Ukrainian territorial defense. “I won’t leave until I know where he is,” she insists.
The same is not the case with Dimitri and his wife, who need to leave but don’t know how. They have three children, one of them a girl of a year and a half, and they want to find a place to protect themselves from winter and the sound of artillery, which does not stop. The Russians are less than a kilometer away, on the other side of the Dnieper River, and the explosions are still part of their routine. “My oldest daughter has panic attacks every night when she hears them,” says Dimitri, who has managed to support her family with a few temporary jobs in the construction field.
“We are desperate,” he insists. On Sunday night, the first train with people who want to leave the city left the Kherson station. Many of them older. The Government has assured that it will relocate all those who want to do so, but for the moment thousands of people are still in this city where the greatest daily achievement is to get a little food, shelter and connection with the outside world. Like Sofia, who doesn’t mind hearing a bad signal on her battery-powered radio.
“My greatest gift is that I am going to turn 94 in two months and Kherson is under Ukrainian control,” he concludes.