A cloud of thick smoke hangs over the occupied city of Kherson in Ukraine. It’s very stench is evidence of Russian war crimes, on a scale almost too sickening to contemplate.
The smoke comes from mobile incinerators that are running night and day. Vladimir Putin’s paranoid soldiers are burning the corpses of Ukrainian citizens tortured and murdered on suspicion of helping the resistance.
And they are dispatching the bodies of their own comrades too — hundreds of them. The Russians are killed by the constant pounding of Ukrainian shells from artillery placements surrounding the city and by highly organized, secret units of freedom fighters.
They are even killed by gangs of youths armed with knives who set upon drunken Russians and stab them.
The incinerators fill Kherson with the reek of charred flesh. There is no mistaking the smell and it adds to the pervasive sense of horror in this Black Sea port. It is a living hell.
I am in contact with pro-democracy activists inside the city who have managed — for the first time since the start of the occupation — to get information out, describing the situation as it deteriorates daily, so that the world can finally have some idea of their plight.
To identify my sources in any way would be to condemn them to certain death. All I can say is that this information is reliable and comes from Kherson residents fiercely opposed to Russian occupation, who are risking everything to reveal the truth.
They say many of the Russian troops are drunk all of the time.
Arms, ammunition, kit and even food are in short supply for Putin’s blundering army — but vodka is always available in abundance.
These soldiers are rounded up from the poorest regions of Putin’s empire, far away from St Petersburg and Moscow. No one in the main cities wants to have their sons sent to be butchered in occupied territory.
Instead, bribes are often offered in rural districts, where conditions are little different from the world of Tolstoy’s peasants. Many people are illiterate and generally ignorant of international news. They live largely without sanitation, in poverty and disease.
These families don’t want to send their young men to war either. But they cannot afford to refuse the government payouts.
And consequently, men from these regions are treated by the Kremlin as utterly disposable, lives without worth. Yet still, to return them to their villages in bodybags would be considered a military embarrassment — as well as an unwarranted expense — and so their remains are simply incinerated. Worthless in life, worthless in death.
When the Russians first occupied places such as Bucha, outside Kyiv, they were almost apologetic to Ukrainian citizens. On a ‘special military operation’ they’d been told would be over soon, these young men didn’t really want to be there. In an odd way, the invaders were almost pathetically friendly.
But then their comrades started to die. And the mood changed.
Now in Kherson, Russians are hunted by snipers, ambushed and bombed. Thanks to consignments of Western arms, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) has the power to inflict serious damage.
The weapon the Russians fear most is the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), supplied by the U.S. and capable of firing barrages of missiles from the back of an armoured lorry. Both maneuverable and lethally accurate, these rocket launchers are effectively unstoppable. They can wipe out an ammunition dump or a column of tanks in one hit.
I’m told that many of the rural Russian soldiers, who have never encountered such advanced military technology, are petrified: ‘They talk of the HIMARS almost as children do of dragons.’
The Ukrainians are exploiting this advantage. The last consignment of American HIMARS missiles was expected to sustain the AFU for a month. But they blazed off the whole lot in three days — and with devastating effects.
At the other end of the fightback are the insurgent youths, ambushing Russians with their daggers. Ukraine’s government does not want to admit this is happening, perhaps because it exposes how desperate the defense has become. But the Russians will not acknowledge it either, because they are ashamed of the damage these youngsters are inflicting.
Groups with knives, sometimes a handful and sometimes a marauding gang, attack Russians wherever they can — slashing them, stabbing them, cutting their throats if they get the chance.
Their fury reflects the hatred of ordinary Ukrainians for the invaders. Putin’s continued pretense that people in the coastal cities have welcomed his army as liberators could not be further from the truth.