From firing positions across the river, Russian forces continually bombard the town they continue to claim as their own. After what was initially a quiet retreat from Kherson, Russian troops appear to have regrouped on the east bank of the Dnieper in recent days, sending artillery, rockets and mortars roaring towards Kherson’s residential areas.
The renewed shelling highlights the limits of Ukraine’s victory in recapturing the city of Kherson, and confirms a grim reality that military experts had been warning about for months: by withdrawing, the Russians had strategically abandoned an inherently weak position in the city, on the west side of the river, to excavate more favorable and fortified defensive positions on the opposite bank.
With the bridges destroyed, the Dnieper proves a natural barrier that Ukrainian troops will not cross without suffering heavy casualties, and Russia, for now, maintains its grip on the wider Kherson region, including the hydroelectric power plant watershed of Kakhovka and the North Crimean Canal, a crucial freshwater supply for Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Perhaps the worst of Russia’s new attacks took place here at Antonivka, a short walk from what was once the main bridge, where a cluster bomb sent shrapnel towards Matvii Kindra’s face on Tuesday morning , 13 years.
His father, Serhii Kindra, was driving Matvii and his brother home from a humanitarian aid rally at a church when the blast hit their car. The 42-year-old father and his other 10-year-old son suffered minor injuries.
But Matvii, an avid martial artist, lay in critical condition in a hospital intensive care unit. His father stood outside the hospital, shaking and clenching his jaw, with his son’s blood still on his forehead and nose. His youngest son walked quietly beside him, fighting back tears as he looked towards the hospital.
“We liberated the city,” Kindra said, “but the war is not over.”
Kindra, a popular emcee at weddings and events in Kherson, had yet to reach his wife to tell her the news. She was helping a group of Red Cross workers at the time, Kindra said.
A previously quiet riverside suburb of Kherson, where street advertisements still promote vacation rentals, the village of Antonivka has become a frontline.
At least six people have been killed by Russian attacks on the city in the past five days, according to the mayor, Serhii Ivashchenko, 42. Ivashchenko said he feared the bloodshed could get even worse.
Antonivka is the closest town to its namesake bridge, and areas of the town closest to the river are now mostly exposed to Russian forces.
About an hour after Kindra and her sons were hit by cluster munitions near the bridge, Washington Post reporters drove past the family’s wrecked car in an underpass frequently used by locals to enter the eastern neighborhoods of the suburbs.
Sniper fire whizzed by, making it clear that the Russians across the river were still at close range.
A Ukrainian military checkpoint was previously stationed near the bridge, blocking some drivers. But the checkpoint became a target, Ivashchenko said, forcing the military to bring it closer to the city of Kherson.
Across Kherson, officials have offered voluntary evacuations, warning residents that a cold and dangerous winter could be on the way. The evacuations come days after Kherson residents cheered the arrival of the first train from Kyiv, marketed to the nation as a “Training for Victory.”
Most of the city is without electricity or running water, after Russian forces destroyed Kherson’s power supply before their retreat. Mobile phone service is spotty or non-existent in some parts of the city, especially Antonivka, making it harder for authorities to keep residents informed or call for help.
Just a 10-minute drive from downtown Kherson, where cafes and restaurants are reopening and bands have been playing concerts in the main square, the streets of Antonivka remain barren.
Rockets litter the front yards of residents, who only leave their homes to queue for humanitarian aid. But aid stations are also targeted. At a recent food distribution attended by the Kherson city mayor, a crowd was forced to lie flat on the ground amid shelling.
At noon on Tuesday, Ivashchenko pleaded with an official outside the temporary Kherson town hall offices to stop publishing the exact addresses where they were distributing aid. He suspected that there were still Russian sympathizers in his village who were sending information to forces across the river and helping to coordinate attacks.
“They are crazy and can use this information to target him,” Ivashchenko told the official. “If you want to publish it somewhere, I don’t want to be solely responsible.”
Before the invasion, Ivashchenko was one of three people helping to run the village, which was once home to around 13,000 people. This population has now fallen to 3,000 and the other two town chiefs have not returned to the town, fearing for their lives. Now Ivashchenko was driving around town to help distribute bags of food.
“When Kherson and the villages were liberated, there were signs of opening up in Antonivka,” the mayor said. “But in the last five days the situation has changed.”
At one such relief point, a crowd of dozens gathered as temperatures approach freezing. They could see their breath as they asked neighbors for help finding food and water.
Residents said they knew they were standing, unprotected, in the Russian line of fire. But they had no choice but to wait there in the cold to eat.
Illia Kobits, 74, said shrapnel was strewn across her lawn. The sky, meanwhile, grew stronger and stronger.
The river, he said, is a massive natural boundary. He doesn’t know when – or how – Ukrainian forces will manage to push the Russians back any further.
“It won’t be soon,” he said.