“Even silence reminds of shelling” — a visual essay about the city of Kherson and its people. November 2023.
The acrid silence is broken by the crunch of glass underfoot.
I am walking along Ushakov Avenue past the deserted Freedom Square. Today is exactly one year since Kherson was liberated. Exactly one year ago, the square was completely packed with people who came out to catch a connection in a city that had been left without any communications. The humid air is tense, and the city seems to be frozen in anticipation. Since December 2022, after Russian troops withdrew to the left bank of the Dnipro river, the city has been under constant chaotic shelling, but today the locals are expecting special greetings from the other side.
In the evening, I meet Vadym, my first character in the series, a thirteen-year-old boy from the outskirts of Kherson. “It’s so strange, today after a day’s sleep I went out to the balcony to smoke, and there is no one on the street, not a soul, only the old man who bummed a cigarette off us yesterday. Everyone is worried about Liberation Day” — the guy says.
Vadym introduced me to his company. They are fourteen-year-old Zhorik and Vanya and thirteen-year-old Ponchik. There’s also Anya and Angelina, ages sixteen and fifteen. They live on the outskirts of the city in a residential neighborhood that has become a kind of a shelter for them — there has been no incomes here for quite some time. They all came together relatively recently. “If it weren’t for the war, this company wouldn’t even exist,” Ponchyk tells me. Each of them has friends who have moved away, some to other cities in Ukraine and some abroad.
“I remember when the class teacher came to us and said that we were switching to distance learning. Everyone was screaming with joy. No one realized that this was our last meeting” — Zhorik recalls. After a moment of silence, he adds: “In general, it’s a pity that everything happened like this, so many opportunities were taken away from us, and now I don’t know what to do. I really want to see my friends who have left, I miss them very much.”
I ask the boys what the war has changed for them in the first place, and all of them except Vanya answer that they started smoking because of anxiety. And after a short pause, Ponchik adds cautiously: “My family… My grandfather was wounded by a shrapnel, and help didn’t come in time to save him.” With a deep, understanding look, Angelina says: “With the war came a certain loneliness. Everyone moved away, and my father was taken to the army. Everyone gained a lot of experience.”
It is hard for them to think that eventually they will have to leave their hometown, but they regretfully admit that they do not see the future of Kherson anytime soon, as uncertainty hangs over it. When the enemy is a dozen kilometers away, it seems impossible to make plans.
Life in Kherson is like a dream. Events are fragmented into a spiral of reality. I see children playing in the playground behind the anti-shrapnel barriers, I see a mother crossing the street with her young son in a bulletproof vest, I see a waitress in the basement of a cafe smoking a vape and nervously flipping through the news feed while shelling is going on down our street.
20 minutes later, I drive my car wheels over broken power lines, and across the street a man waits for a trolleybus at the bus stop.
Late at night, there is a powerful shelling in the center. The next morning, someone will be left without a home.
At the half-empty central market, a seller of funeral wreaths says that the locals are used to it, that he relies on chance. In Kherson, no one is hundred percent sure that they will go to work tomorrow. Even silence here reminds of shelling.