Kherson, Ukraine (AP) – A week since the liberation of the southern Ukrainian city of Khersonresidents cannot escape the memories of the horrifying eight months they spent under Russian occupation.
There are people missing. There are mines everywhere, closed shops and restaurants, power and water shortages and explosions day and night as Russian and Ukrainian troops fight right across the Dnieper.
Despite the hardships, residents express a mixture of relief, optimism and even joy – not least because of the regained freedom to express themselves at all.
“Even breathing became easier. Everything is different now,” said Olena Smoliana, a pharmacist whose eyes lit up with happiness as she recalled the day Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.
Cherson’s population has shrunk to around 80,000 from its pre-war level of nearly 300,000, but the city is slowly coming to life. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy triumphantly walked the streets cheered Russia’s withdrawal on Monday – a humiliating defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin – as “the beginning of the end of the war”.
People are no longer afraid to leave their homes or fear that contact with Russian soldiers could lead to a prison or a torture cell. They gather in the city squares – adorned with blue and yellow ribbons on their bags and jackets – to charge phones, fetch water and talk to neighbors and relatives.
“If we got through the occupation, we’ll get through this without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyshuk, 53, who had been hiding at home with her husband Oleksandr since the start of the Russian invasion but now comes downtown every day.
The worst deprivation was the lack of freedom to be yourself, which is like being in a “cage,” she said.
“You couldn’t say anything out loud, you couldn’t speak Ukrainian,” said Oleksandr Nenadyschuk, 57. “We were constantly watched, you couldn’t even look around.”
Kherson residents speak of the “silent terror” that defined their occupation, which differed from the devastating military sieges that plagued other Ukrainian cities — like MariupolSieverodonetsk and Lysychansk – in ruins.
Russian troops entered Kherson in the early days of the war from nearby Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and quickly captured the city. The city was the only regional capital that Moscow captured after the February 24 invasion began.
In Kherson, people mainly communicate in Russian. At the beginning of the war, some residents were tolerant of neighbors who were sympathetic to Russia, but during the occupation there was a noticeable change, said pharmacist Smoliana.
“I’m even ashamed to speak Russian,” she said. “They have oppressed us emotionally and physically.”
Many people fled the city, but some simply disappeared.
Khrystyna Yuldasheva, 18, works in a shop across from a building used by Russian police as a detention center where Ukrainian officers are investigating allegations of torture and abuse.
“There’s no one here anymore,” she told a woman who stopped by recently looking for her son.
Others wanted to leave but couldn’t. “We tried to leave three times, but they closed all possible exits out of town,” said Tetiana, 37, who asked not to be used by her last name.
While people were euphoric immediately after the Russian withdrawal, Kherson remains a city on hold. The Russian soldiers left a city without basic infrastructure – water, electricity, transportation and communications.
Many shops, restaurants and hotels are still closed and many people are unemployed. Residents have been drawn downtown by truckloads of groceries delivered by Ukrainian supermarket chains or by internet hotspots that have been set up over the past week.
Russian products can still be found in small shops that survived the occupation. And the city is still adorned with banners promoting Russian propaganda, such as “Ukrainians and Russians are one nation,” or encouraging Ukrainians to get Russian passports.
Some Ukrainians swear loudly as they walk past the remains of the war.
On Saturday, people eagerly awaited the arrival of the first train in Kherson since the invasion began. Mykola Desytniakov, 56, has not seen his wife since she left for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv with their two daughters in June.
Desytniakov stayed behind to tend to his ailing parents, he said, holding a single rose and peering anxiously across the platform for the arrival of the train that will reunite his family.
“She’ll scold me for not liking flowers,” he said of his wife. “But I’ll give it to her anyway.”
Ludmila Olhouskaya had no one to meet at the train station but 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. “Or rather, the revival of an earlier one.”
A major obstacle to people’s return to Kherson and reconstruction, according to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, will be the clearing of all mines that the Russians have placed in administrative offices and near critical infrastructure.
“De-mining is needed here to bring life back,” said Mary Akopian, the deputy home secretary. Kherson has a bigger problem with mines than any other city that Ukraine has retaken from the Russians because it has been occupied the longest, she said.
Akopian estimated that it would take years to completely clear the city and surrounding province of mines. 25 people have already died while clearing mines and other explosives that had been left behind.
Before retreating, Russian soldiers looted shops and stores – and even museums. The Ukrainian government estimates that 15,000 artifacts were stolen from museums in the Kherson region and taken to nearby Crimea.
“In fact there is nothing there,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelenskyy’s office, wrote on his Telegram channel after a trip to the Kherson region. “The Russians have killed, mined and robbed all cities and towns.”
The humiliating Russian retreat did not end the sounds of war in Kherson. About 70% of the wider Kherson region is still in Russian hands. Explosions can be heard regularly, though locals aren’t always sure if they’re from demining operations or from clashing Russian and Ukrainian artillery.
Despite ongoing fighting nearby, the people of Kherson feel confident enough to ignore airstrike warning sirens and gather in large numbers on the streets – to greet each other and thank Ukrainian soldiers.
Like many residents, the Nenadyshuks don’t flinch when they hear the explosions in the distance, and they don’t like to complain about other difficulties they face.
“We’re holding on. We are waiting for victory. We won’t whine,” Yulia Nenadyshuk said. “All of Ukraine,” her husband added, “is in this state now.”
Sam Mednick contributed to this story.
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