On first impressions, a visit to downtown Kherson might be regarded as a little disappointing. As you step off the train there is a row of heavily armed military police with assault rifles cocked, wearing full body armour and helmets, their faces covered with balaclavas, shouting at the alighting passengers not to exit via the station forecourt (that has been blown to pieces by a Russian missile) but instead via a complex series of sandbags piled three metres high to form a snake-like network of passengers that now serve as the main entrance and exit point for the railway station in the centre of town. Nevertheless I pass these very polite gentlemen by without incident, and duly head on my way to my hotel. There are selection of distinctly unsavoury taxi drivers offering their services speaking to me in Russian, but I decide to forego their generous offers in favour of Shanks’s Pony. I have no trouble finding my hotel, but on the way I notice that there has been a fresh round of fragmentation warheads detonate on the city’s high street, blowing out all the windows. Fresh glass is all over the pavements, and every second building has structural damage; smashed or boarded windows; or has simply been blown to pieces. As I walk down the street, I hear the relentless boom of air defence missiles approximately once every 20 seconds. I must confess that even by my adventurous standards, it’s all slightly unnerving.
The English-speaking person I was communicating with at the hotel is no longer available, and instead the hotel - which is reassuringly constructed in reinforced concrete - is managed by a solitary Ukrainian-speaking man who nevertheless tries to be as helpful as possible in the admittedly difficult circumstances. He checks me into my room - cash only - and he writes the WiFi passcode in pen on a slip of paper. I ask him where the restaurant is; there aren’t many in this town that are still open but there is one close by and it looks pretty decent. Something tells me I am going to be visiting that establishment more than once during my stay here, although I have learned that last orders is at 6.30pm and the de facto curfew here is 8pm. The streets are empty by 6pm and it is hard to get food after that.
I decide to go fort a pleasant afternoon stroll down to the waterfront in advance of my meeting with a local NGO worker here this evening. I strap my lead plate into the layers of my clothing and I put on my steel helmet and off I go. The streets are empty and the rare car in sight is either some military vehicle or an ancient old Soviet-era banger. There are packs of ferrous wild untamed dogs running round the streets in packs. It’s all rather creepy, particularly as there are relentless booms and bangs all around me, but central Kherson is not entirely without sights.
Alas, my stroll along the waterfront is not to be. What I didn’t realise until I came up close to the waterfront is that the Russian positions are not, as I had been told, about 800 metres away from Kherson waterfront but actually about 150 metres away and that is well in range. Now I am not particularly in the mood to test my lead plate or steel helmet against a Russian sniper rifle round, so I decided against walking down to the waterfront. You can do; nobody will stop you; but you can see the Russian positions with the naked eye. There are giant tank traps that mark the end of the road, beyond which it is palpably not safe to walk without being shot. This point marks the end of civilisation. The Russians have withdrawn but the Dnieper River is actually very narrow at this point and you can’t go anywhere near it with serious danger of death.
I wonder into one of the few shops in town that is open. It has a food section but the shelves are almost bare. I find some cocktail sausages, a couple of home-made pastries and a bit of cheese. It’s a fairly simple bag of rations and I wolf half of it down because I’m starving after my 20-hour train ride from Lviv that was pretty devoid of food. I sit down in a pleasant enough pub not far from the tank traps, that is of course completely empty. This pub must be about 200 metres away from the Russians but nevertheless it stays open. The pub has a calm to it and the polite staff serve me a couple of cappuccinos speaking in Russian and then they double-charge me. I gracefully pay up; the sums involved are trivial but I sense that the population of Kherson is very much split between those who are pleased to see the end of the occupation and those who dream of it returning.
My colleague from the NGO calls me frantically. The Russians have just blown up a house 300 metres down the road from his. The Chief of Police has rung him and told him to stay at home. He advises me to lock myself down in my hotel until morning, and grab as much food as I can in the meantime because God knows what might happen next. Apparently there’s a slightly better supermarket just up the road and that’s where I’m going now. As I walk back to my hotel to write these words, I heard boom-bang-boom-bang and I confess that it’s slightly unnerving. Nevertheless this isn’t in fact the worst place I’ve been on the front line, because that restaurant I spotted sells beer and that makes everything fine for me. I’ll pop down to the supermarket now, then head over to the restaurant for a couple of pints of strong lager, then maybe after curfew I’ll come back and write some more to you about this crazy town the world seems to have forgotten. Any serious business will have to wait until tomorrow, because the Russians seem determined to spend the rest of the day smashing the city to pieces. Welcome to sunny Kherson, vacation city of your dreams.