The front bridge gives hope to Ukrainians fighting for Kherson

The front bridge gives hope to Ukrainians fighting for Kherson


The aging Ukrainian fighter watched for months as his wounded comrades were carried back across a humpback bridge that marked the beginning of the land Russia claims as its own.

It was a disheartening sight as he crouched at his heavily fortified checkpoint and trained his binoculars on the western edge of the troubled Kherson region.

But then something changed about two weeks ago.

“There were a lot fewer of those ambulances coming down the bridge,” said a soldier named Gres, a retired police officer.

“It feels like something happened about two weeks ago.”

What the 51-year-old father of two may have witnessed — unbeknownst to him at the time — was a turning point in brutal combat on Ukraine’s strategic southern front.

– information blocking –

The Ukrainians launched a lightning counter-offensive in September that cleared the Russians of land east of the 1.4-million-strong northern city of Kharkiv.

A similar feat around the smaller southern city of Kherson could prove even more painful for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The river port and its eponymous region gave Putin a long-awaited land connection to the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin captured in 2014.

Its loss could pave Ukraine’s way back to the economically important Sea of ??Azov and threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea itself.

Before the most momentous confrontation of the ninth month of the war, the Russians evacuated tens of thousands of civilians and smuggled in reinforcements.

But information blackouts in both Moscow and Kyiv mean the true course of the battle can only be seen from the so-called gray areas, which neither side fully controls.

Gres still hasn’t dared to walk the few hundred steps from his checkpoint to the Cherson border bridge because of the incalculable dangers.

A jet that Gres suspected might have been Russian had circled overhead that morning, and enemy artillery fire was still within range.

Kherson remained temptingly out of reach of the soft-spoken soldier.

“But it feels a lot closer than before,” he said with a tired smile.

– ‘Still scary’ –

All Olga Yasenko knew was that her village on the Kherson border, Shevchenkove, was shelled only twice that morning — and not the usual dozen or more.

The 48-year-old stood with a hammer in front of the ruins of the school she ran before Russian troops took over the village early in the invasion – only to be pushed back by Ukrainians last month.

Winter snows were coming and the school’s broken windows had to be boarded up to save what was left of the empty classrooms.

“It’s scary standing out here,” Yasenko admitted with a nervous laugh.

A few of their neighbors – happy men who all stayed behind to save the village from the fighting burning down – raised a Ukrainian flag on the school’s damaged roof.

“You have to be optimistic,” said welder Oleksandr Romanstevych after climbing down a ladder that leaned against the school’s pockmarked wall.

“You just have to keep working and stay positive,” said the 37-year-old.

– ‘We are close’ –

That optimism can feel fleeting in the frontline regions of a war that has leveled entire cities and left millions without heat or electricity through the long winters.

The principal kept smiling and fighting back tears as she recalled losing touch with her 309 students.

“It’s so hard to believe what happened,” she said quietly.

Leonid Suslov experienced similar turmoil while sitting alone on his broken porch.

The 63-year-old lost a leg in an accident many years ago and never seriously considered fleeing the fighting.

“We win,” said Suslov. “I refuse to believe anything else. It just has to be true.”

The soldier and former martial arts trainer Fizruk – a nom de guerre that can be roughly translated as “sports teacher” – was sure.

The bearded 36-year-old climbed out of a foxhole opposite the Kherson Bridge and patted his assault rifle with a light gesture.

“I come from Cherson and I still know a lot of people there. They are suffering,” said Fizruk.

“I just keep telling them to hold on, that we’re close.”

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