KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — A week since the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was liberated, residents can't escape reminders of the terrifying eight months they spent under Russian occupation.
People are missing. There are mines everywhere, closed shops and restaurants, a scarcity of electricity and water, and explosions day and night as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle just across the Dnieper River.
Despite the hardships, residents are expressing a mix of relief, optimism, and even joy — not least because of their regained freedom to express themselves at all.
“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.
Kherson's population has dwindled to around 80,000 from its prewar level near 300,000, but the city is slowly coming alive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy triumphantly walked the streets 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 worried that contact with Russian soldiers might lead to a prison or torture cell. They are gathering in city squares — adorned with blue-and-yellow ribbons on their bags and jackets — to recharge phones, collect water and to talk with neighbors and relatives.
“If we survived the occupation, we will survive this without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk, 53, who had hunkered down at home with her husband, Oleksandr, since the Russian invasion began but now comes downtown every day.
The worst deprivation was the lack of freedom to be yourself, which was 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 being watched, you couldn’t even look around.”
Residents of Kherson talk about the "silent terror'' that defined their occupation, which was different than the devastating military sieges that turned 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 Feb. 24.
People mostly communicate in Russian in Kherson. Early on in the war, some residents were tolerant of neighbors who sympathized with Russia, but there was a palpable shift during the occupation, said Smoliana, the pharmacist.
“I'm even ashamed to speak Russian,” she said. “They oppressed us emotionally and physically.”
Many people fled the city, but some just disappeared.
Khrystyna Yuldasheva, 18, works in a shop across the street from a building the Russian police used as a detention center and where Ukrainian officials are investigating allegations of torture and abuse.
“There is no one here anymore,” she told a woman who recently came by looking for her son.
Other people sought to leave, but couldn’t. “We tried to leave three times, but they closed all possible exits from the city,” said Tetiana, 37, who didn’t want to be identified by her last name.
While people were euphoric immediately after the Russian retreat, Kherson remains a city on hold. The Russian soldiers left a city devoid of basic infrastructure — water, electricity, transportation and communications.
Many shops, restaurants and hotels are still closed and many people are out of work. Residents were drawn downtown this past week by truckloads of food that arrived from Ukrainian supermarket chains or to take advantage of internet hotspots that were set up.
Russian products can still be found in small shops that survived through occupation. And the city is still adorned with banners touting Russian propaganda like “Ukrainians and Russians are a single nation,” or that encourage Ukrainians to get a Russian passport.
Some Ukrainians curse out loud when they walk past the remnants of war.
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 are heard regularly, although locals aren’t always sure whether they are from the mine-removal work or from clashing Russian and Ukrainian artillery.
On Saturday evening, two missiles struck an oil depot in Kherson — the first time a depot was hit in the city since the Russians withdrew, according to firefighters. Associated Press reporters saw a blazing fire and thick black smoke at the scene. Firefighters said the Russians stole firetrucks and ambulances as they retreated, leaving local authorities scrambling for resources to respond to attacks.
“There was a strong explosion,” said Valentyna Svyderska, who lives nearby. “We were scared, everyone was scared ... Because this is an army that is at war with the civilian population."
Earlier in the day, people excitedly waited for the first train to arrive in Kherson since the early days of the invasion. Mykola Desytniakov, 56, hasn’t seen his wife since she left for Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, with their two daughters in June.
Desytniakov stayed behind to take care of his ailing parents, he said, holding a single rose and peering anxiously over the platform.
“She will scold me, she doesn’t like flowers,” he said of his wife. “But I will give them to her anyway.”
Ludmila Olhouskaya didn’t have anyone to meet but went to the station anyway to show her support.
“This is the beginning of a new life,” the 74-year-old said, wiping off tears of joy. “Or rather, the revival of a former one.”
A major obstacle to bringing people back to Kherson, and to the rebuilding effort, will be clearing all the mines the Russians placed inside offices and around critical infrastructure, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
“Demining is needed here to bring life back,” Mary Akopian, the deputy internal affairs minister, said. Kherson has a bigger problem with mines than any of the other cities Ukraine reclaimed from the Russians because it had been under occupation for the longest period, she said.
Akopian estimated it would take years to completely clear mines from the city and the surrounding province. Already, 25 people have died clearing mines and other explosives left behind.
Before retreating, Russian soldiers looted from stores and businesses — and even museums. The Ukrainian government estimates that 15,000 artifacts have been stolen from museums in the Kherson region and taken to Crimea, which itself was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
“There is, in fact, nothing there,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelenskyy's office, wrote after a trip to the Kherson region. “The Russians killed and mined and robbed all cities and towns.”
Despite the ongoing fighting nearby, people in Kherson feel confident enough about their safety to ignore air-raid warning sirens and gather in large numbers on the streets — to greet each other and to thank Ukrainian soldiers.
Like many residents, the Nenadyschuks do not wince when they hear the explosions in the distance, and they are loathe to complain about any other difficulty they face.
“We are holding on. We are waiting for victory. We won’t whine,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk. “All of Ukraine," her husband added, "is in this state now.”
Sam Mednick contributed to this story.
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