Cloaked in secrecy: Ukraine’s advance south reveals devastation left by Russian invaders | world news

The Ukrainians’ southern counter-offensive to recapture the city of Kherson is well known, but unprecedented.

The entire front line has been closed to everyone for more than two weeks, indeed it is shrouded in secrecy.

After days of negotiations, the military gave in and allowed Sky News to Kherson’s front line to see what happened and what is happening.

The liberated towns in the northern campaign have exposed potential war crimes, but have also seen a return to normal life.

War crimes ‘have been committed’ – Ukraine latest

My first impression, driving through the outskirts of Vysokopillya and past checkpoints manned by soldiers sheltering under trees rather than more formal and more common breeze block bunkers, is that this battle is proving difficult and far from over.

The soldiers are still in far too much danger to set up regular checkpoints.

The Ukrainians may have taken back Vysokopillya and pushed the Russians onto the road, but they’re only five miles away — in battlefield terms, that’s a very marginal change.

The city has been destroyed, it’s as simple as that.

Small numbers of people walk about, pushing bicycles through streets littered with glass, rubble, shrapnel, burnt-out cars and vans, and lined with shelled houses.

Vysokopillya

The center of town is eerily quiet, save for the thump and thump of artillery at close range.

The fins of unexploded rockets look like metal leaves from a potted plant buried in the ground.

Interesting to watch, but deadly.

Strangely enough, the Russians are holding a referendum on whether the Kherson region should become part of the Russian Federation.

Until September 5, the residents of Vysokopillya should also vote.

Now the people we spoke to are denouncing the referendum as ridiculous, and certainly not to them.

Vysokopillya
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Halyna insisted she would not participate in the referendum

Halyna, 65, was hard to miss, walking down the street with her bike and dog, wearing a bright red robe.

She looked traumatized, but wants to talk about life here and the referendum taking place a few miles away.

“The Referendum?” she said before I could finish my question. “I would never vote for that! I don’t need a ‘Russian world’.”

“The people there live a normal life in Moscow, Leningrad and other such cities, but in their villages I don’t want that life.”

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The Russians said they would never leave. The residents who have stayed or have returned speak of living in fear and, most importantly, of systematic widespread looting.

Vysokopillya
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A Ukrainian flag flies in Vysokopillya

On the road where the Russians withdrew, we filmed a burnt-out van that appeared to be full of motorcycles, presumably stolen.

One of the residents, Bohdan, spoke to me at the gate of his house, which itself had been badly damaged by bombing.

He told me that stealing and looting was standard procedure for the Russian soldiers.

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“They stole everything, the cars, even bikes, all the technical stuff…everything,” said the 71-year-old.

“If they couldn’t start a car, they would tow it away and leave nothing behind. They burned, destroyed and broke everything.”

Vysokopillya
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Vasyl and Nadiya have returned to Vysokopillya

Husband and wife Vasyl and Nadiya also lived under occupation.

They managed to leave for a while, and have now come back, but they struggle with what they went through.

“They abused people, beat people, it was horrible. They wouldn’t let us leave our homes,” Nadiya explained.

“As soon as we tried to leave, they shot over our heads with machine guns, so we had to hide. They were afraid we would see where they hid their machines and weapons, they even had ‘grads’ there, so we just stayed in the basement, because we were afraid to leave.”

“It was so humbling; I have no words to describe it…”, added her husband Vasyl.

Vysokopillya

The area hospital was used by the Russians as their headquarters. In front of the door a blue car with the now infamous ‘Z’ painted on its side.

There are a few rows of new graves in the town’s cemetery for those who died during the occupation and liberation.

Volodya Kostenko let us in. He explained that he had joined a group that gathered and buried the dead.

He wept softly at the graves of a family.

Volodya had used his car and trailer to retrieve the bodies. He told us that he took 13 of them to the cemetery and buried them himself.

Vysokopillya

Most who died were elderly or ill. But he revealed that one of them was a family he believes were shot and killed by the Russians.

He has no idea why.

As he spoke, he collapsed, walked away and cried.

Few will overcome this war.

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