A week after Kherson, in southern Ukraine, was liberated, residents cannot shake the memories of the terrible eight months they spent under Russian occupation, according to an Associated Press report.
The whereabouts of many are still unknown, there are mines everywhere, shops and restaurants remain closed, electricity and water are lacking. Explosions throughout the day and night are testament to the clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces fighting across the Dnieper River.
Despite the difficulties, residents show a mixture of relief, optimism and even joy – not least because they have regained the freedom to express themselves.
“Even breathing is easier. Now everything is different,” said Olena Smoliana, a pharmacist whose eyes sparkled with happiness as she recalled the day the Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.
Kherson’s population has gone from 300,000 pre-war residents to just around 80,000 today, but the city is slowly coming to life. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walked the streets triumphantly on Monday, hailing Russia’s withdrawal – a humiliating defeat for Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin – as the “beginning of the end of the war”.
People are no longer afraid to take to the streets or fear that contact with Russian soldiers could result in arrest or a torture cell, and inhabitants gather in city squares – festooned with blue and yellow ribbons on their bags and coats – to recharge telephones, fetching water and talking to neighbors and relatives.
“If we survive the occupation, we will survive this without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk, 53, who has holed up at home with her husband, Oleksandr, since the start of the Russian invasion but now visits the city center daily.
“Nobody could say anything out loud. You couldn’t speak Ukrainian,” said her husband, Oleksandr, 57.
“We were constantly being watched. You couldn’t even look around,” he added.
Russian forces entered Kherson in the early days of the war from neighboring Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and quickly occupied the city, the only regional capital the Russians captured after the invasion began on Feb. 24.