- Abdujalil Abdurasulov
- BBC News, Kherson
The advance of Ukraine to regain control in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia it has been much more limited than its successes in the northeast.Frontline positions are regularly targeted as both Russia and Ukraine try to advance.BBC’s Abdujalil Abdurasulovgot an access unusual to front in Kherson, a region where the Russian army told them to Ukrainian men who could be recruited to fight with them.
An old Soviet self-propelled howitzer called the Gvozdika or “Carnation” is deployed in an open field and moved into position. Its barrel rotates upwards. “Fire!” the command yells.
The gunners scramble away after the last shot.
Although the advance of the Ukrainian forces in the south is very slow, their artillery units are still busy.
Stus, commander of the gunners, explains that the Russians target their infantry and they respond to silence them.
His work is very noticeable on the front. The soldiers cross the vast field under cover of a line of trees. They pay no attention to the sound of missiles flying overhead or the dull thud of explosions.
The fighters say there is a Russian observation post 500 meters away and that could be within range of small arms.
The Ukrainians are moving quickly to reach a destroyed farm building they repossessed just a week ago. They are now digging trenches and carrying sandbags to strengthen their new position.
But Ukraine’s progress in the south is slow.
waiting to be released
All the talk here about the counteroffensive helps to mislead the Russians and advance in the east, laughs Vasyl, deputy commander of the regiment.
“But here we also have some success. We continue to liberate villages with small steps, but it is very difficult: every victory we have is covered in blood,” he adds.
Many Ukrainians who remain behind the Russian front, in the occupied territories, eagerly await this counteroffensive.
“We are elated when Ukraine attacks the occupied territories,” says Iryna, a resident of Melitopol in the south.
“It means that Ukraine has not forgotten us. We all know that living near military infrastructures and buildings is not safe, so most of the civilians have moved away from those places.”
But for people in the territories occupied by Russian troops, the longer they wait, the harder it is to survive.
Many believed that the counteroffensive would occur in August. But when that didn’t happen, people began to flee to Ukrainian-controlled territories and areas further west.
Among them was Tatyana Kumok from Melitopol. The Israeli citizen was visiting her hometown when the Russian invasion began in February.
She stayed in town and helped residents, but in September, she and her family decided to leave. One of the main reasons for leaving was Russia’s announcement to hold so-called referendums.
“As soon as they finish, the Russians will introduce new bans in accordance with their laws and try to legitimize the occupation,” he says.
With the city turned into a giant military base, he says it’s clear Russian troops won’t leave easily.
“It is obvious that the city will not be liberated this fall [boreal]”, he adds.
Even a silent resistance to the Russian occupation now it’s getting dangerous.
Children in schools run by Russia
In September, many families were forced to send their children to Russian-run schools even though the children would be exposed to Kremlin propaganda.
“If you don’t send your son to school, it’s a litmus test for you, it means you have pro-Ukrainian views”Kumok explains.
“I know parents who had to tell their 7-year-old son not to talk about things discussed at home with anyone at school. Otherwise, they could take him away. That was really horrible.”
The repression against people who do not support the russian government is growing.
“There has been a sharp increase in arrests since August following the successful Ukrainian airstrikes,” says Bohdan, who still lives in Kherson. He spoke to the BBC via a messaging app and his real name was withheld for his security.
Bohdan says the previous arrests were based on a list of names held by the Russian military. But now anyone can be arrested and thrown into a basement for questioning.
Russian soldiers recently came to Hanna’s (not her real name) home in Nova-Kakhovka, a town in the Kherson region, to check who lived there.
“They did not enter the house, but it was still scary. Now I do not even walk with my phone,” he said through a messaging application.
Fear of being mobilized
The self-proclaimed referendum brings with it a new threat to the local population: mobilization.
Many men could be recruited to fight in the ranks of the Russian army.
Russian soldiers are already going from house to house in some villages and taking down the names of the male inhabitants, local residents say.
They claim that the soldiers have told them to be ready for a call-up after the referendum.
According to reports, men between the ages of 18 and 35 are no longer allowed to leave the occupied territories.
Iryna left on September 23, the first day of the so-called referendum, with her husband and two children. They wanted to stay to care for her 92-year-old disabled grandmother.
“But when Putin announced the call, [de reservistas] and we already knew about the referendum, it was clear that there would be a massive mobilization and men would be arrested on the street, regardless of their age,” he says.
“We could survive without gas or electricity, we could find solutions for that. But not for this. That was our red line,” says Iryna.
The Russian call will pose more challenges for the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
It will certainly intensify the war and more people will diesay the Ukrainian soldiers.
“We must not underestimate our enemy,” says Stus, commander of the gunners.
“Those newly recruited Russian soldiers will have guns and grenades, so they will pose a threat, which we will have to eliminate.”
As the gunners await further assignments with their howitzer hidden in the bushes, Russian troops attack a nearby Ukrainian village with Grad missiles. The gunners fall silent as they listen to the series of explosions.
That terrifying sound was just another reminder that the success of the Ukrainian troops will depend on how quickly they can silence the Russian artillery and rocket launchers.
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