Under rainy skies on Thursday afternoon, Ukrainian-controlled Kherson’s central square was bustling with humanitarian aid distribution and displays of patriotic celebration tinged with uncertainty about the future.
Last week, Russia pulled its troops out of a pocket on the west bank of the Dnipro River in Ukraine, which included Kherson, the only regional capital it had captured since the February invasion.
Ukrainian officials say Russians destroyed the city’s critical infrastructure before leaving. There is no running water, electricity or central heating.
Hundreds of people stood in line for humanitarian assistance but said they had no idea what they might receive. A few people said they had been waiting for hours.
“It’s not that we’re hungry. We lost our jobs because of the occupation,” said Olga Meshcherikova, who was queuing with her husband Ihor, 48, now an unemployed builder.
Ihor, indicating the east bank of the Dnipro, said nothing was over yet.
“On that bank of the river, the forces are gathering; on this side, they are gathering. We’re in the middle — I’m afraid we’ll end up like Mariupol,” he said.
The port city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, suffered major damage before falling to Russian forces in May.
At one end of the damp central square, a man played the Ukrainian anthem on the accordion as bystanders sang along. At the other end, a man strummed popular Ukrainian rock songs.
Children and teenagers gathered around a kneeling soldier as he signed flags draped around their shoulders.
Moscow illegally declared Kherson to be Russian after a September referendum denounced by Ukraine and its allies as a sham. A billboard advertising the vote was still standing, but someone had scrubbed out the word “Russia.”
Women, children and soldiers posed for photographs on a central marble plinth.
Anya Vostoboinik, 62, a one-legged woman in a wheelchair, clutched a pack of disposable diapers she had been given.
She said the Russian occupiers had arrested her son, a former soldier named Oleksii, 28, three months ago and never released him.
“Where is he now? I don’t know. I would go to the end of the world to find out. If I could just find out where he is. He’s my only son. He was always nearby. Now … ,” she said, before tearing up, unable to go on.
Svetlana Libus, 61, who was wrapped up warm with her tiny dog poking its head out of her coat, said she needed her hormonal medicine as she was recovering from thyroid cancer but could not find it anywhere in Kherson.
She said humanitarian aid included only basic medicines and insulin, but not what she needed.