A resident of Kherson said the situation in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city was tense and people were “depressed”, with streets deserted from mid-afternoon and Russian soldiers often dressed in civilian clothes.
CNN reached out to the woman through a third party and spoke shortly before the Russian-appointed government of Kherson ordered civilians to leave as Ukraine sought to retake the city in response to a Moscow invasion.
“Due to the tension on the front lines, the increased danger of mass shelling of the city and the threat of terrorist attacks, all civilians must leave the city immediately and go to the east bank of the Dnieper,” the government said Saturday.
Authorities had previously advised people to leave; Saturday’s announcement appeared to be more than that.
On Friday, the female civilian in Kherson said: “Unfortunately, many residents of Kherson have had to consider leaving the city. Everyone has their own reasons, concerns and fears. But I am 100% sure there is no People want to go.”
CNN has not identified the woman for security reasons.
She said Kherson had become a ghost town. Tens of thousands of residents have left since the Russian occupation began in March.
“At night you can see a lot of high-rise buildings with at most two or three windows lit. During the day, you can meet most of the people around the market. But by 3-4pm, the streets are deserted, no one at all. nobody.”
On Saturday, Yuriy Sobolevskyi, a Ukrainian official, said on Telegram that “despicable scumbags terrorizing Kherson” had ordered all elevators in the city to be closed.
The woman said she was not considering leaving. “To be honest, this question makes me angry… This is my country and Kherson is my home. From the first day of the war we participated in rallies against the occupiers and we fought as hard as we could. The fight continues.”
The woman said she had not heard of anyone being forced to leave in these days. Some are still trying to reach Vasilevka in the neighbouring Zaporozhye region, the only crossing point still open between Russia and Ukrainian-controlled territory.
It is unclear whether that will change now under the latest directives from designated Russian authorities.
The atmosphere in the city was tense, the woman said. “People are mentally exhausted and some don’t leave their homes at all to avoid contact with the military. It’s impossible to relax here. At night hearing the sound of cars driving near the house, I started to get nervous because a late car is not a good sign.”
She insisted that most of those who left understood that the Ukrainian army “will never harm the population or shell civilians”.
The woman said while utilities continued to operate, there were concerns about the adequacy of electricity and heating in winter. “Everyone is terrified of the coming winter.”
She said there was enough basic food available. “Kherson has largely become a spontaneous market where people sell as much as they can. Someone bakes homemade bread, someone bakes cakes, someone puts their stuff in the middle of the road on a piece of paper and sells it.”
But with the Russians already occupying people’s ships, she wasn’t sure how the food deliveries from the east coast would hold up.
Medical supplies and baby formula are in short supply and very expensive, the woman said. “Everything imported now is medicines from the Russian Federation. Medicines are just sold on the street from cars or privately by some people.”
Pharmacies always have long queues and things like antibiotics are in short supply.
She wasn’t sure whether the number of Russian soldiers in Kherson had increased or decreased, but she noticed a growing number of Chechen fighters in the city.
“I can’t say there are fewer Russian soldiers, they just took off their military uniforms and put on civilian clothes. Some people are walking down the street in civilian clothes, but with machine guns.”
She said she welcomed the sound of shelling.
“The residents of Kherson were frightened by the silence. I remember there were quiet days in the summer, and it seemed to everyone that Ukraine had forgotten us.
“You can often hear how the Ukrainian armed forces shelled the occupiers’ positions. You can’t even imagine how happy the locals were,” she said.
“The sounds of automatic weapons are regularly heard in different parts of the city, but it is not known who is exchanging fire.”
Ukrainian troops are still some distance from the city of Kherson, but have invaded other parts of the region. Russian troops appeared to be dug up and defend their positions while launching missile strikes against the Ukrainian advance. Local Russian-appointed officials insisted that Moscow’s forces intended to defend the area, while Ukrainian officials said tactical groups of as many as 45 Russian battalions could now be located on the west bank of the Dnieper.
But Ukrainian officials say that in some areas of Kherson, such as Berislav, the occupation authorities have halted their activities in recent days. “The collaborators working with the Russian occupier continue to leave the city with their families and property,” Ukraine’s military said on Friday.
Over the past few days, Ukrainians have crashed into a newly erected pontoon bridge under the Antonivsky Bridge near the city of Kherson. Four people were killed, local authorities said.