Weeks after Vladimir Putin’s forces retreated from Kherson, Ukrainians are again fleeing their homes in terror
Only a fortnight after celebrating the arrival of Ukrainian soldiers liberating them from eight months of Russian occupation, farm workers Larysa and Oleksandr Simutenko made a terrifying escape from their home outside Kherson.
The couple in their sixties were forced to run through Russian shelling to escape pounding attacks on the village of Kozatske.
The Russian military retreat from Kherson and surrounding villages in southern Ukraine last month was one of the most significant defeats of the war so far — their third major withdrawal after Kyiv in March and the Kharkiv region in September.
But the nightmare was not over for civilians in the port city on the Dnipro River and the picturesque villages along its banks.
Russian forces took up new positions on the opposite bank of the river, placing the Simutenkos in the firing line on what is now the main frontline in southern Ukraine.
“When our soldiers came, we were glad for a little while, but when the Russians retreated, they started to shell us, bomb us, so it became even worse,” Mr Simutenko told the ABC.
“There were shelling attacks throughout the last nine months but during our last days there, they were even worse. They were impossible.
“We didn’t want to leave but we had to.”
No longer occupiers, Russia menaces Kherson from across the river
Fearing a Ukrainian advance through Kozatske, retreating Russian forces left land mines that killed civilians and destroyed a section of the bridge from the village over the Nova Kakhovka dam, which straddles the river’s banks.
Once safely across the water, Russian soldiers took up position at the Kakhova hydro-electric station, and began launching relentless shelling attacks on the lands they just relinquished.
The power plant and the villages around it have become a new focus of the battle for southern Ukraine, as Russian forces guard a defensive line on a long stretch of the river.
Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to protect the people of this region, who he claimed were Russians after he illegally annexed the territory in September without even controlling it.
But since the November 11 withdrawal, his soldiers have killed dozens of civilians in hundreds of shelling attacks on the city of Kherson and in villages including Kozatske, according to the Ukrainian army.
Serving no clear strategic purpose, the indiscriminate pummelling of residential areas seems only to be an act of revenge, as Mr Putin’s tries to cripple the country while his disastrous invasion spirals.
Last weekend, the Simutenkos received word that an evacuation bus was on its way to the local school.
The couple released their animals and ran from their home as missiles whistled overhead, hitting houses in the village.
“We just grabbed some bags — what we could,” Ms Simutenko said.
“We nearly didn’t make it to the school. They started to shell, bomb and shoot.
“People were hiding and dropping to the ground to protect their children.”
Evacuees from Kozatske told the ABC they faced an agonising wait, taking shelter behind the school until the bus arrived.
They said the Russian army fired cluster bombs, which are banned under an international treaty because they scatter bomblets that maim civilians.
The bus drove them 170 kilometres north to Krivyi Rih, an industrial city known for producing iron ore, steel and the country’s defiant President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Each day for the past fortnight, Mr Zelenskyy’s hometown has welcomed busloads of families, elderly and people with disabilities from the Kherson region, as attacks on villages across from the power station continued.
The attacks have left many villages struggling through freezing temperatures without electricity, gas, heating and running water, as winter takes hold
The Simutenkos and others from their village now sleep in Kryvyi Rih’s High School No. 27, where classrooms are lined with fold-out beds and what little belongings the evacuees had time to take from home.
“I was in shock when I came here,” Ms Simutenko said, crying.
“At night, we hid in basements while they shelled. It was damp and cold there. We got sick.
“So many people died back home. Their bodies were in basements. People dug graves in their gardens because it wasn’t safe to take them to the cemetery.
“We left everything. A lot of people left Kozatske. Now there are only elderly people there who don’t have relatives to look after them.”
Stories of horror emerge from Kherson
Schools have been operating as shelters since the start of the war, while students across Ukraine take their classes online.
The halls of Kryvyi Rih High School No. 27 are cold and dark, blighted like much of Ukraine by severe power shortages caused by widespread Russian air strikes on the electricity grid.
Evacuees receive free meals in the school canteen, under the direction of the school’s principal Natalia Vashenok, who hears “terrible stories” of their lives under Russian occupation.
“The whole time, some lived in basements or in other premises not fit for living,” Ms Vashenok told the ABC.
“They were banned from going outside. If they went outside without permission, they could be shot.
“The Russians made them draw Z and V signs on their fences and windows.
“Now they have no water, electricity or gas because of the shelling so they had to leave their homes to survive the winter.”
The capture of the city of Kherson and surrounding villages was one of the most significant victories for Russia less than a week into the invasion of Ukraine.
At the beginning of the occupation, 17-year-old Kozatske schoolgirl Victoria Mozgova and her mother Antonina were filmed by a Russian TV crew and asked to sing the praises of their occupiers on camera for propaganda.
The family suffered brutality at the hands of Russian soldiers.
Parents hid their daughters from Russian soldiers. Their sons were tortured and beaten.
“Boys were taken away, locked up and beaten,” said Victoria’s mother, Antonina, who now spends her days at Kryvyi Rih High School No. 27 with her husband and six children.
“My son was given electric shocks. They asked him if he knew [Ukrainian] Anti-Terrorist Operation soldiers and beat the boys to try to make them surrender.
Antonina said her son returned home “beaten and blue”.
“Our neighbour was tortured and beaten so badly that he barely got home. He was treated later in hospital for suppuration of the legs and broken ribs,” she said.
Other residents of High School No.27 were not as fortunate to see their children again.
Where is Maksym?
Svetlana Shulga, who escaped her village of Vysokopillya in April, carries a worn print-out of a passport photo of her son, Maksym Anatoliovich.
The 22-year-old is one of thousands of Ukrainian civilians who have disappeared from occupied areas since the war began.
He and a friend were kidnapped and detained by Russian soldiers in the first days of the invasion, Ms Shulga said.
“My son’s friend was found dead in a field a few weeks ago, but my son is still missing,” she said.
Ms Shulga has carried her son’s photograph to police stations across the region asking for help to find him, but he is one of thousands of civilians reported missing from occupied parts of Ukraine.
“Staff at the local government told me he was detained at a location that was later bombed, but I don’t know what happened to him,” she said.
“The police told me that the Russians were kidnapping young men to force them to join the army in Crimea or to send them to prison.”
Ms Shulga doesn’t know what to believe.
“He spent five months in hospital. He has an arrhythmia in his heart. He often catches a cold. I don’t know where he is now,” she said.
‘Leave us in peace and calm, so women will not worry for their children’
For Larisa Simutenko, who now shares a room with Ms Shulga, the woman’s agony is a heartbreaking reminder of the ongoing toll of the war, despite recent Ukrainian victories.
“Every time her phone rings, she’s shaking. Every call, she’s crying,” said Ms Simutenko of her new roommate.
“She expects it might be him calling or someone with information about him.
“The only thing I want is that the Russians leave our country, leave us in peace and calm, so women will not worry for their children.”
As the Ukrainian Government warns of a harsh winter ahead, with Russian attacks again cutting electricity to Kherson this week and more feared across the country, Kryvyi Rih High School No. 27 is preparing to welcome more evacuees.
But the spirit of resilience and resolve that has come to define the Ukrainian people shows no sign of letting up.
“We are prepared for any situation,” said the school’s principal, Ms Vashenok.
“We have a generator, a stockpile of water and a bomb shelter. We have wood and a potbelly stove, and the main thing is we have each other.
“That’s why everything will be OK.”