Home News The Russians destroyed their villages. Now they rebuild.

The Russians destroyed their villages. Now they rebuild.

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The twin-line concrete pyramid winds through rolling farmland outside the city of Kherson. The pyramids are anti-tank fortifications known as “Dragon’s Teeth” and are a symbol of new fortifications being built in Ukraine’s south in response to a Russian offensive.

In a nearby village, residents are focusing on a more pressing task: collecting donations of building supplies.

People in the Kherson region have been slowly rebuilding their homes and livelihoods since a Ukrainian counteroffensive forced Russian troops to withdraw west of the Dnieper River and ended the brutal occupation 18 months ago.

Many have repaired their roofs, doors and windows, but as they begin planting crops and tending gardens, they are bracing for another Russian attack.

“Everything is possible,” Oksana said, pausing to weed the flowerbed in front of her home. Like most people interviewed for this article, she gave only her first name out of fear of Russian retaliation. “There are rumors that there will be a big attack in May-June. We heard they are going to retake Kherson.”

She said her two sons joined the army after the Russians were forced to evacuate, complaining that they lacked weapons. “It’s very difficult,” she said of conditions on the front lines.

For those who lived through eight months of Russian occupation, these memories stirred fears that the Russians would be harsher the second time around.

Oksana described how her family lived under the gunpoint of Russian soldiers across the street, and how her husband nearly died from a neck injury in a shell blast.

“It’s scary,” she said. Her face scrunched up as she began to cry.

Down the street, Oleksandr Kuprych, a 63-year-old war veteran, kept a shotgun in his greenhouse and said he would use it if the Russians came back.

“I will send the women and children away,” he said. “I’ll be here. I’ve got my trench and my rifle.”

In his house there was also a Russian soldier’s helmet, damaged by long scratches from an axe.

Kuprich said he killed the soldier with an ax and buried him and his rifle in the tree line above the village. The soldier was one of two who fired at villagers who were trying to climb a mountain in search of cell phone signal.

“I was so angry that I used all my strength to hit the axe,” he said.

When Ukrainian soldiers reoccupied the village, he showed them where he had buried his soldiers. They took the body and the rifle but let Kuprich keep the helmet. The incident was written up in a book about Kherson’s resistance under occupation.

Kherson’s rural communities are resilient but severely degraded. Some frontline villages were severely damaged and only a few families were able to return to repair their homes. Electricity and natural gas have been restored in most places, but water must be trucked to some villages. Irrigation canals remain destroyed and farms and businesses largely abandoned.

There are few job opportunities and most families survive on handouts. International charities have provided residents with cows and cash to buy chickens and seeds.

Some of the largest villages, such as Myrolyubivka, are bustling with families displaced from frontline communities. Blue tarpaulins were spread over the damaged roofs, and vegetable gardens were neatly cultivated.

However, these villages, less than 20 miles from the front line, remain targets for Russian rockets and bombs. Myrolyubivka recently completed a large underground basement where school children gather twice a week for classes and games. But before work in the basement could be completed, Russian missiles struck the local hospital, destroying an entire wing and several houses.

“Let them die, these bastards,” Tamara, 71, said of the Russian troops as she pushed her bicycle in the street. “I was tending my garden and shells were flying over my head and it was rumbling.”

In another village, community leader Lyubov described the cascade of destruction caused by fighting in 2022. “Schools were destroyed, kindergartens were destroyed, the Palace of Culture was destroyed, hospitals were destroyed,” she said. She asked that her last name and village name not be published to avoid further becoming a target of Russian rockets.

She said the United Nations and international charities had provided residents with building materials to repair more than 100 houses in the village, but 50 were beyond repair. “We’re waiting for funding for this,” she said.

Russian shelling is not the only source of difficulty.this Kakhovka dam destroyed Last year, widespread flooding in the Kherson region drained the Kakhovka reservoir, causing groundwater levels to drop and wells in some villages to become infected or dry up.

Hundreds of hectares of land are covered with mines and unexploded ordnance. The fields were untended and white ribbons fluttered among the weeds, warning people of landmines.

Officials say it will take years to clear the mines, but some farmers say they can’t afford to wait. Some people pay private contractors to clear their fields. Others began sweeping their fields with metal detectors.

“We found anti-tank mines and anti-personnel mines,” said Oleh, a 35-year-old farmer and mechanic, bending under the tractor engine. “It’s the same thing every day. Clear mines and then plant seeds.”

His village, located on the front line, was one of the worst damaged. His wife Maryna, 33, said because there was no school, only a few families with 10 children lived there.

Beneath the physical destruction lies the deep trauma of the occupation.

A two-story ruined house on the edge of the village of Plavdeen served as a Russian position during the occupation. Russian cigarette boxes and ration packets were scattered among the broken glass and rubble on the floor. There are burned armored vehicles in the distance.

At the beginning of the invasion, Russian troops killed six guards of an agricultural company and a 15-year-old girl who was with them, and blew up the house where they lived. Investigators exhumed their bodies after the occupation and found two of them had been shot in the head, according to details released by Kherson regional police. The document cited the role of a man serving in the Russian Marine Corps in the killings.

Many families had men on the front lines or had lost loved ones in the war. “Who will answer this question?” said psychologist Naira, whose niece’s husband was killed in the fighting.

While some urban populations in southern and eastern Ukraine have Russian ancestry, the rural population is overwhelmingly Ukrainian. During the occupation, few villagers worked for the Russian government. Some left with the Russian army. Others have been accused of collusion by Ukrainian authorities and jailed, said Viktor Klets, a 71-year-old farmer.

But he said divisions were emerging among the remaining communities in the form of petty jealousies and complaints about the amount of compensation people were being allocated.

Kretz said there are still Russian sympathizers in the village, but they are currently silent. He said there was solidarity among those who survived the occupation together, but others who left and then returned accused them of looting their own homes.

“War changes people,” said neighbor Lena, 45, standing next to him. “It makes people meaner.”

Villagers often quote the same proverb about the future. “Life is like one long field,” Mr. Kretz said. “Anything can happen along the way.”

Yuri Shivara Reporting from Kherson in Ukraine contributed.

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