The city of Kherson, located in the south of Ukraine, is facing extensive destruction due to Russia’s “scorched earth strategy.” This strategy involves the deliberate burning, destruction and removal of resources that could be useful to an adversary in the region.
Russia’s “scorched earth“ strategy has included widespread destruction of cities and villages in Ukraine. The Russian military employs various tactics, including the use of banned chemical weapons and cluster munitions, and it has recently begun using guided aerial bombs.
On Oct. 15, the Russian military dropped 30 guided aerial bombs on the Kherson region, causing damage to critical infrastructure. Within hours, the city was subject to more bombings. The Russian forces used parachute explosives and launched attacks with multiple launch rocket systems, tanks and mortar.
In addition, on the same day, the Russian military launched 97 attacks, with 514 shells fired at the Kherson region from artillery, mortar, tanks, MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System), aviation and drones, of which 83 shells targeted the city of Kherson. Attacks often start at 4 a.m. in the morning and continue through 9 a.m., so the residents of Kherson suffer constant sleep deprivation. This is a typical day in the life of Kherson and the Kherson region.
As a result of the Russian aviation strikes, villages are reduced to rubble daily. The distinct sound of an approaching aerial bomb and a loud rumble followed by a thunderous explosion has become familiar in Kherson, its suburbs and the villages in the Kherson region.
The Russian military aims at the residential quarters of the populated areas of the region. In recent weeks, a building of Kherson State University was hit and the roof of the recreation hall was damaged. The university is currently working online as that was the fourth attack on the campus. Twelve of its schools were closed, so there were no casualties. Another college dormitory, evacuated a while ago, gets constantly targeted.
The Kherson Children’s Hospital was targeted several times, and the neonatal department building was damaged. Patients are treated at a building next door. The General Hospital also suffered damages last month.
A farmers’ market downtown was attacked two days in a row. Suburbs also face relentless attacks: Hospitals and educational institutions in the Beryslav district have been destroyed. The Russian military uses banned cluster munitions, and the dart-like fillings of the rockets are spread on the roads, mixed with broken glass.
Kherson holds a strategic position, situated on the Black Sea and the Dnipro River, making it a potential launchpad for Russian assaults on Ukrainian seaports such as Mykolaiv and Odesa, as well as Transnistria in Moldova. It is also considered a pivotal location for the control over Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, central to the political and strategic landscape of the ongoing Russian war of aggression.
The Dnipro River divides the Kherson region, with Russian forces on the left bank systematically launching attacks on the city and suburbs on the right bank currently under Ukrainian control.
Russian forces occupied Kherson in early March 2022. Ukrainian forces and local fighters fiercely resisted the Russian advance, but despite a lack of coordination among various Russian units, their numerical advantage eventually led to the capture of the city on March 1, 2022.
After the occupation, Kherson’s residents continued to rally in support of Ukraine’s government. Russian forces responded with violence, firing shots and using tear gas to suppress dissent. Russian soldiers patrolled the city and conducted searches at checkpoints, monitoring phone transactions and scrutinizing residents’ personal information. The Russian Guard’s Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) carried out kidnappings and torture of locals while looting and destruction became widespread.
Some residents evacuated, whereas others chose to resist. Underground resistance was active, with partisans using explosives to target the Russian military and collaborators.
In September 2022, Russia forcibly annexed Kherson and other regions through illegitimate referendums, blocking access to Ukrainian media and influencing the population with Russian propaganda materials.
In November 2022, Ukraine liberated Kherson without a major battle. The city’s residents welcomed the Ukrainian army and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with flags and flowers. In response, Russian forces attacked Ukraine’s power grid. Post-liberation investigations uncovered torture chambers and mass graves in the region, as well as multiple war crimes committed during the occupation.
In the aftermath of the Russian retreat, Kherson is confronted with the task of clearing numerous landmines left behind, posing a threat to the region’s agricultural enterprises. Demining efforts are under way, involving various units and organizations, albeit hindered by constant shelling. Safety remains a top priority for the demining teams so the process is relatively slow and might take years.
In June 2023, the Kherson region faced ecocide, after the Russian military blew up the Nova Kakhovka dam leading to severe consequences to the environment. Many areas in the city and suburbs are still filled with debris as the rescue teams cannot approach them due to the Russian shelling.
Faced with relentless attacks, many residents reluctantly agreed to evacuate, but fleeing Kherson is risky. On Oct. 15, the shockwave from an explosion shattered windows on a train heading to Kyiv.
Olga Maliarchuk, deputy for defense for the Kherson regional military administration, who had previously survived a Russian missile attack in Mykolaiv, interacts with the military and coordinates defense efforts, grappling with the ongoing threat of unpredictable shelling. Maliarchuk moved to Kherson after the liberation of Kherson in November 2022, as the front line moved from Mykolaiv to Kherson.
She said in an interview that the Russian military attacks civilians aiming to create panic in the Ukrainian population and provoke calls for peace negotiations. As the Russian Federation fails to advance at the front, the Kremlin is seeking ways to win time to regroup.
Maliarchuk also highlighted the ongoing evacuation efforts, supported by various volunteer organizations, local administrations and the police. The evacuation of families with children is compulsory in villages close to the front line.
Some Kherson Oblast residents have to travel by rubber boat under shelling to load on mini buses and travel to Kherson and further away from the front line. For the handicapped, elderly and families with children and pets, such journeys are often too challenging, and many prefer to stay in their homes despite the constant bombing. Many do not have the financial resources to leave.
With the cold season approaching fast, broken windows and damaged roofs present a big problem. Despite the ongoing efforts of city authorities and volunteers, the city cannot keep up with the Russian attacks. The yards are filled with piles of broken glass as the garbage bins can take only a certain amount per day.
Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, press officer of the Kherson Regional State Administration, documents Russian war crimes and evacuations of families fleeing from Russian attacks, sharing updates with national and international audiences. He takes photos of the devastation, and some of his work was shared by the office of the President of Ukraine.
“I see ongoing pain, death and destruction,“ Tolokonnikov said in an interview. “These photos must be seen by the international community in order to stop the Russian aggression. During the last month, it has increased and people do not hear about it enough.”
Due to its proximity to the front line, Kherson rarely gets visits from the international media. Inadequate press coverage allows Russia to continue its daily attacks on Kherson. Urgent international intervention is needed to prevent the city’s complete destruction.