For eight months, residents of the Ukrainian city of Kherson have been living under brutal Russian occupation. But on Friday, Ukrainian forces overran the town and Russian troops retreated east.
Residents have no water, no internet connection and little electricity. But as a CNN crew rolled into town on Saturday, the mood was euphoric.
As the crew filmed live in Kherson’s central square, some in the crowd of locals sang the national anthem while others shouted “Slava Ukrayini!” – glory to Ukraine, a patriotic salute.
“We feel free, we are not slaves, we are Ukrainians,” Olga told CNN.
Residents also climbed to the top of buildings, including the cinema, in the square to erect Ukrainian flags. Soldiers crossing are greeted with cheers and invited to sign autographs on the flags.
When Russian troops arrived at the start of the war, it was a city that tried to resist: people were taken away, tortured, disappeared, residents say.
“We were terrified of [the] In the Russian army, we were terrified of soldiers who can come into our house at any time, into our house – just open the door, as if they live here, and rob, kidnap, torture,” said Olga.
But now people are flocking to the central square of the newly liberated city, wrapped in Ukrainian flags, chanting and chanting “Freedom for Ukraine”.
“Everyone here is partying in the square here. People are carrying the Ukrainian flag, they’re hugging the soldiers, they’ve come out to see what it’s like to have freedom,” Robertson said.
Katerina described the release as the “best day” of her life after eight months under Russian occupation. “Our city is free, my street is free,” she told CNN.
Another local resident named Andrew said he was so happy to see Ukrainian soldiers.
“I think a lot of people were killed here. We don’t know yet,” he said of the period under occupation.
A Ukrainian special forces soldier, who only gave his name as Daniel, told CNN his unit was the first to arrive in Kherson. “My commander placed the flag on top of the building,” he said.
“It was a real explosion for us, finally. Before the 11 [of November], it was five days of hard work, real hard work. The Ukrainian soldiers, as always, have just confirmed again that they are stronger than the Russians.
He added that the civilians of Kherson are the “real heroes” for having spent so long under Russian occupation. “I can’t imagine how happy they are right now,” he said.
The CNN team appeared to be the first international reporters to reach downtown Kherson since it changed hands in the past 48 hours.
On Friday, Russia announced that it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnipro River in the strategic southern region of Kherson, leaving the regional capital of the same name and its surroundings to the Ukrainians.
The retirement is a blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital captured by Russian forces since the February invasion. Their eastward retreat across the Dnipro is ceding large swaths of land that Russia has occupied since the early days of the war and which Putin officially declared Russian territory just five weeks ago.
“It was a really difficult time for everyone. Every Ukrainian family was waiting for our soldiers, our army,” another Kherson resident told CNN on Saturday, recalling the months-long Russian occupation.
The woman said it was “incredible” to see Ukrainian troops in Kherson.
“We have felt your support every day, thank you so much,” the woman added, before hugging Robertson.
Ukrainian authorities are working to return the city to “normal life”, the head of the regional military administration, Yaroslav Yanushevich, said in a video message on Saturday, adding that the military administrations of the city, the oblast and of the district had arrived in the city and had begun their duties. .
“The National Police and Security Service of Ukraine have also taken up their duties. The State Service for Emergency Situations carries out mine clearance. We are working for the return of the city to normal life,” Yanushevich said.
Around 200 police officers are currently working in the city, Ukraine’s national police said in a statement on Saturday.
“Roadblocks have been set up around and in the territory of Kherson. The regional police continue to record the crimes of the Russian occupiers,” the statement said.
The main threat comes from landmines, police said, adding that explosives technicians were working to detect and eliminate them. “One of the police sappers was injured today while demining an administrative building in Kherson,” police said.
Residents who left Kherson are advised “not to rush back until stabilization measures are completed”, police said.
Speaking on Saturday about the next steps for the Ukrainian military, CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton said, “This is going to be a major urban operation. What you will see is a methodical operation to clear the buildings of possible traps and mines.
“Another thing that the Ukrainians will have to do is that they will have to advance their systems in order to be able to counter any possible Russian artillery that will be on the eastern bank of the Dnipro.
“You can see that the Ukrainians have moved to this bank of the river, they now control this area, they will have to mop up some remaining Russian forces that have not managed to get out of the west bank of the Dnipro. But those who are there are will likely surrender or be essentially knocked out of the fight.
On Friday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released a nighttime video of the celebrations in the city, where a crowd was waving flags and chanting “ZSU”, the Ukrainian acronym for armed forces.
Earlier in the day, the Ukrainian army’s Southern Operational Command said Russian forces had “urgently loaded boats that appear suitable to cross and attempt to escape” across the river.
It was unclear whether all Russian troops had left Kherson and the wider region. Serhiy Khlan, a member of the Ukrainian regional council of Kherson, said the city was “almost under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces”, but warned that some Russian troops may have remained in civilian clothes.
He warned that many Russian soldiers “have thrown away their military uniforms and are now hiding in civilian clothes”.
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