For eight months, the residents of the Ukrainian city of Kherson have been living under the merciless occupation of Russia. But on Friday, Ukrainian forces entered the city and Russian troops withdrew to the east.
Residents have little water, internet, and electricity. But on Saturday, the mood turned euphoric when a CNN crew rolled into town.
As the crew filmed live in Kherson’s central square, some locals sang the national anthem, while others chanted “Slava Ukraine!” they shouted. – Glory to Ukraine, a patriotic greeting.
“We feel free, we are not slaves, we are Ukrainians,” resident Olga told CNN.
Local residents also climb to the tops of buildings on the square, including the cinema, to raise Ukrainian flags. Passing soldiers are cheered and asked to autograph flags.
Even at the beginning of the war, when Russian troops entered, it was a town that tried to resist: people were taken away, tortured, disappeared, residents said.
“We were horrified [the] “We are terrified of the Russian army, the soldiers who can come to our house at any moment – just open the door, as if they live here and steal, steal, torture,” said Olga.
And now people are flocking to the central square of the newly liberated city, draped in Ukrainian flags and chanting “Freedom to Ukraine.”
“Everyone here is celebrating in the square here. People are wearing the Ukrainian flag, hugging the soldiers, coming out to see what freedom is,” said Robertson.
Katerina called her release after eight months of Russian occupation “the best day” of her life. “Our city is free, my street is free,” he told CNN.
Another local resident named Andrew said he was very happy to see the Ukrainian soldiers.
“I think a lot of people were killed here. We just don’t know it yet,” he said about the period under occupation.
A Ukrainian Special Forces soldier, who gave his name only as Daniel, told CNN how his unit first reached Kherson. “My commander put the flag on top of the building,” he said.
“Finally, it was a real blast for us. before 11 [of November], five days of hard work, real hard work. “Ukrainian soldiers, as usual, once again confirmed that they are stronger than the Russians.”
He added that civilians in Kherson are “real heroes” because they have been under Russian occupation for a long time. “I can’t imagine how happy they are right now,” she said.
A CNN team appeared to be the first international journalists to reach downtown Kherson after it had changed hands over the past 48 hours.
On Friday, Russia announced that it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnieper River, which is located in the strategic southern region, handing over the regional capital of the same name and surrounding regions to the Ukrainians.
The withdrawal deals a major blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital captured by Russian forces after the February invasion. Their retreat eastward across the Dnieper gives way to large swaths of territory that Russia has occupied since the early days of the war and which Putin officially declared as 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 resident of Kherson said in an interview with CNN on Saturday, recalling the months-long Russian occupation.
The woman said that seeing Ukrainian soldiers in Kherson is an “amazing” feeling.
“We’ve felt your support every day, thank you so much,” the woman added before hugging Robertson.
The Ukrainian government is 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 city, regional and district military administrations have arrived in the city and started serving. .
“The national police and security service of Ukraine have also undertaken their duties. The State Emergency Service is engaged in mine clearance. We are working for the city to return to normal life,” Yanushevich said.
The National Police of Ukraine said in a statement on Saturday that about 200 police officers are currently working in the city.
“Blocks have been set up around Kherson and in its territory. The regional police continues to record the crimes of the Russian invaders,” the information says.
The police said that the main danger is caused by mines, and that technical experts are working on detecting and neutralizing explosives. “Today, one of the policemen was injured during the demining of the administrative building in Kherson,” the police said.
Residents who left Kherson are advised “not to rush back until stabilization measures are completed,” police said.
Speaking about the next steps for the Ukrainian military on Saturday, CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton said: “This is going to be a big urban operation. What you will see is a methodical operation to clear buildings of potential booby traps and mines.
“Another thing the Ukrainians will have to do is move their systems forward so they can counter any possible Russian artillery on the east bank of the Dnieper.
“You can see that the Ukrainians have moved to that river bank, they are now in control of that area, they will have to wipe out some of the remaining Russian forces that can’t get out of the west bank of the Dnieper. But those who are there will probably either surrender or essentially be removed from the battle.
Late on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released video of a night of celebrations in the city, where crowds waved flags and chanted “ZSU”, an acronym for the armed forces of Ukraine.
In the morning of the same day, the southern operations command of the Ukrainian army reported that Russian forces were “immediately loaded onto boats that appeared suitable for passage and were trying to escape” across the river.
It was unclear whether all Russian troops had left Kherson and the wider region. Serhii Khlan, a member of the Kherson regional council in Ukraine, said the city was “almost under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” but warned that some Russian soldiers might be left behind in civilian clothes.
He warned that many Russian soldiers “have thrown away their military uniforms and are now hiding in civilian clothes.”