Sun. Dec 4th, 2022

A week since the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was liberated, residents cannot escape reminders of the terrifying eight months they spent under Russian occupation.

People have disappeared. There are mines everywhere, closed shops and restaurants, power and water shortages, and explosions around the clock as Russian and Ukrainian forces fight just across the Dnieper River.

Despite the difficulties, residents express a mixture of relief, optimism and even joy – not least at their regained freedom to express themselves at all.

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“Even breathing became easier. Everything is different now,” said Olena Smoliana, a pharmacist whose eyes shone with happiness as she recalled the day Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.

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Kherson’s population has shrunk to around 80,000 from a pre-war level of close to 300,000, but the city is slowly recovering. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walked the streets in triumph on Monday, hailing Russia’s withdrawal – a humiliating defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin – as “the beginning of the end of the war”.

People are no longer afraid to leave home or worry that contact with Russian soldiers could lead to prison or a torture cell. They gather in town squares – adorned with blue and yellow ribbons on their bags and jackets – to charge their phones, get water and talk to neighbors and relatives.

“If we survived the occupation, we will survive this without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk, 53, who has been sitting at home with her husband Oleksandr since the Russian invasion began, but now comes downtown every day.

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 withdrawal

The worst deprivation was the lack of freedom to be who you were, which was like being in a “cage,” she said.

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“You couldn’t say anything out loud, you couldn’t speak Ukrainian,” said Oleksandr Nenadyschuk, 57. “They were watching us all the time, you couldn’t even look around.”

Residents of Kherson speak of the “quiet terror” that defined their occupation, which was different from the devastating military sieges that reduced other Ukrainian cities – such as Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk – to rubble.

Russian forces entered Kherson in the early days of the war from nearby Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and quickly took over the city. The city was the only regional capital Moscow captured after the invasion began on February 24.

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People in Kherson mostly communicate in Russian. At the beginning of the war, some residents were tolerant of neighbors who sympathized with Russia, but there was a noticeable shift during the occupation, said Smoliana, a pharmacist.

“I’m even ashamed to speak Russian,” she said. “They oppressed us emotionally and physically.”

Many people fled the city, but some simply disappeared.

Khrystyna Yuldasheva, 18, works in a store across the street from a building used by Russian police as a detention center and where Ukrainian officials are investigating allegations of torture and ill-treatment.

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“There is no one here anymore,” she said to the woman who had recently come looking for her son.

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US and Polish officials spoke with Ukraine to clarify deadly missile incident: White House

Other people wanted to leave but couldn’t. “We tried to leave three times, but they closed all possible exits from the city,” said 37-year-old Tetiana, who did not want to reveal her last name.

While people were euphoric immediately after the Russian withdrawal, Kherson is still a city in waiting. Russian soldiers left the city without basic infrastructure _ water, electricity, transport and communications.

Many shops, restaurants and hotels are still closed, and many people are out of work. Residents were drawn to the city center last week by trucks full of food that arrived from Ukrainian supermarket chains or took advantage of internet hotspots that had been set up.

Russian products can still be found in small shops that survived the occupation. And the city is still decorated with banners praising Russian propaganda such as “Ukrainians and Russians are one nation,” or encouraging Ukrainians to get a Russian passport.

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Some Ukrainians swear loudly when they pass by the remnants of the war.

On Saturday, people were excitedly waiting for the first train to arrive in Kherson since the first days of the invasion. Nikolai Desyitnyekov, 56, has not seen his wife since she went to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, with their two daughters in June.

Desyitnyekov stayed behind to care for his ailing parents, he said, clutching a single rose and peering anxiously across the platform for the arrival of the train that would reunite his family.

“She will scold me for not liking flowers,” he said of his wife. “But I’ll give them to her anyway.”

Ludmila Olhouskaya had no one to meet her at the station, but she went there to show her support.

“This is the beginning of a new life,” said the 74-year-old, wiping tears of joy from her cheeks. “That is, reviving the former.”

The main obstacle to the return of people to Kherson and reconstruction efforts will be the removal of all landmines placed by the Russians inside administrative offices and around critical infrastructure, according to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.

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“Demining is needed here to bring life back,” said Mary Akopian, deputy interior minister. Kherson has a bigger mine problem than any other city that Ukraine has recaptured from the Russians because it was under occupation the longest, she said.

Akopian estimated that it would take years to completely clear the city and the surrounding province of mines. 25 people have already died clearing residual mines and other explosives.

Before the retreat, Russian soldiers looted shops and businesses – and even museums. The Ukrainian government estimates that 15,000 artifacts were stolen from a museum in the Kherson region and taken to nearby Crimea.

Click to play video: 'Ukraine's power grid faces increasing pressure as winter approaches'

Ukraine’s electricity grid is facing increasing pressure as winter approaches

“Actually, there is nothing there,” Kirill Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelensky’s office, wrote on his Telegram channel after a trip to the Kherson region. “The Russians killed, mined and looted all cities and towns.”

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The humiliating Russian withdrawal did not stop the sounds of war in Kherson. About 70% of the wider Kherson region is still in Russian hands. Explosions are heard regularly, although locals are not always sure whether they are from demining work or clashes between Russian and Ukrainian artillery.

Despite the ongoing fighting nearby, people in Kherson feel confident enough about their safety to ignore air raid sirens and gather in large numbers on the streets _ to greet each other and thank Ukrainian soldiers.

Like many residents, the Nenadyschuks don’t flinch when they hear explosions in the distance and are reluctant to complain about any other difficulties they face.

“We’re holding on. We are waiting for victory. We will not cry,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk. “All of Ukraine,” added her husband, “is in this state now.”