Wed. Dec 7th, 2022

KHERSON, Ukraine – The first yellow and blue flags flew in Kherson around 11 a.m. on November 11, as the Ukrainian army was on its way to end the Russian occupation.

It has been 256 days since the Ukrainian flag flew over the city.

During that time, residents were forced to hide their Ukrainian identity from soldiers sent by President Vladimir Putin to annex Kherson and make it part of Russia.

They lived in constant fear and even avoided speaking Ukrainian, said Olena Poliakova, a 21-year-old student who remained in Kherson throughout the occupation.

“Ukrainian language and symbols began to be banned in the city,” she said in an interview.

“No one was happy to see the Russians here.”

Russian troops repeatedly searched Olena Poliakova’s phone during the occupation of Kherson.

Emile Ghessen

Poliakova has experienced repression firsthand. Russian soldiers searched her phone as many as four times, she said.

“They checked all my messages, photos. They were looking for any connection with Ukraine.”

She was “very scared” when her phone was taken for the first time, afraid they would find the Ukrainian songs she was listening to, she said. “Luckily they didn’t open that app.”

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The mood changed as soon as the Russians left last week, with the Kremlin ordering them to withdraw across the Dnieper River in the face of a Ukrainian advance.

The Russian signs put up after the invasion were quickly torn down, and the locals dug out their Ukrainian flags and gathered in Nebesna Sotnja square.

Four days later, people were still pouring into the square, waving small hand-held flags and carrying larger ones over their shoulders. They hugged the soldiers and photographed them.

Ukrainians display their flag in Kherson after the defeat of Russian forces.

Emile Ghessen

The victory was hard won.

Olena Litvinova said five of her friends were taken from their homes with bags over their heads. The Russians held them for 48 days and beat them, she said.

“They said one of them was a military observer,” she said.

The conflict with Russia overshadowed Litvinova. She moved to Kherson when the Russians seized Ukraine’s Donetsk region in 2014, she said.

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After the Russians rolled their tanks into Kherson, she said she felt pressure to suppress her Ukrainian identity.

“At first we didn’t hide anything, but when the soldiers started entering the buildings and searching, we took the gold, documents and Ukrainian flags to a safer place,” she said.

Those days are over now. Walking around town this week with her husband and daughter, Olena Yankovska proudly wore a Ukrainian ribbon on her bag.

She made it herself from one of her daughter’s ribbons “to show her support for our liberation,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Kherson villagers cheer, give flowers as Ukrainian soldiers arrive after Russian retreat'

Locals of Kherson cheer, give flowers as Ukrainian soldiers arrive after the Russian retreat

During the months of occupation, the family avoided the Russians. In order not to be drawn into the fake referendum organized by Moscow, they did not show their passports or reveal their surnames.

“We did not take Russian SIM cards. If we took them, we will have to leave them a copy of our documents, which we didn’t want,” said Olena’s husband Oleh.

In order to receive pensions, social benefits or humanitarian aid, residents had to give the Russian administration their personal information, which was later used during the referendum on joining Russia, he said.

“No one from our circle went to the polls. And the referendum happened unexpectedly for us. We received information that it would happen only a day earlier,” he said.

Olena Yankovska, right, with her daughter and husband.

Emile Ghessen

The Russians tried to introduce their currency, the ruble, into the city, but had little success except in the larger shopping centers. As soon as the Russians announced their withdrawal, the ruble was removed from the price list.

“We believed that Kherson would be freed,” he said. “Yes, it was difficult for us, especially during the last months, when it was almost impossible to withdraw the (Ukrainian) hryvnia or pay with it.”

Between 80 and 90 percent of the couple’s friends lost their jobs because of the occupation, and a 60-year-old woman was detained because her two sons were police officers, he said.

“When she came back, she didn’t say anything about what they did to her,” he added.

Olena said that she had never seen so many happy faces since the liberation.

A boy hugs a Ukrainian soldier in the central square of Kherson after the withdrawal of Russian forces.

Emile Ghessen

Mykola Lysytsyn, who came to the city center with his girlfriend for the celebration, said his brother Leonid was the first to raise the Ukrainian flag in the square last Friday.

It was Leonid’s birthday, and raising the flag was “the greatest gift to my brother,” he said.

“I am proud to have been among the eight people who removed the Russian flags,” Lisitsin said. “Those are rags.”

He said that for a while Ukrainians were forced to obey the Russians and ‚Äúdance to their tune, but that will not happen again. Our soldiers in the city.”

“We can be free again,” he said.