By HANNA ARHIROVA (Associated Press)
KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — A week after the liberation of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, residents cannot escape reminders of the terrifying eight months they spent under Russian occupation.
People are missing. There are mines everywhere, shops and restaurants closed, power and water shortages, and explosions day and night as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle just across the Dnieper.
Despite the difficulties, residents express a mixture of relief, optimism and even joy, especially because of their newfound freedom to express themselves.
“Even breathing has become easier. Everything is different now,” said Olena Smoliana, a pharmacist whose eyes shone with happiness as she remembered the day Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.
Kherson’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 marched through 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 their homes or fear that contact with Russian soldiers could lead to a prison or a torture cell. They gather in town squares – adorned with blue and yellow ribbons on their bags and jackets – to charge their phones, fetch water and talk with neighbors and relatives.
“If we survived the occupation, we will survive it without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk, 53, who had hunkered down at home with her husband, Oleksandr, since the start of the Russian invasion but who 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 57-year-old Oleksandr Nenadyschuk. “We were constantly watched, you couldn’t even look around.”
Residents of Kherson speak of the “silent terror” that defined their occupation, which was different from the devastating military sieges that turned other Ukrainian cities – such as Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk – into rubble.
Russian forces entered Kherson at the start of the war from neighboring Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and quickly took control of the city. The city was the only regional capital captured by Moscow after the invasion began on February 24.
People mainly communicate in Russian in Kherson. At the start of the war, some locals were tolerant of neighbors who sympathized with Russia, but there was a noticeable change during the occupation, said Smoliana, the pharmacist.
“I’m even ashamed to speak Russian,” she says. “They oppressed us emotionally and physically.”
Many people fled the city, but some simply disappeared.
Khrystyna Yuldasheva, 18, works in a store opposite a building that Russian police have 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 to pick up her son.
Other people tried to leave, but couldn’t. “We tried to leave three times, but they closed every possible exit in town,” said Tetiana, 37, who did not want to be identified by her last name.
While people were euphoric immediately after the Russian retreat, Kherson remains a waiting city. Russian soldiers left a city without basic infrastructure – water, electricity, transport and communications.
Many shops, restaurants and hotels are still closed and many people are unemployed. Residents were lured downtown last week by food trucks from Ukrainian supermarket chains or to take advantage of internet hotspots that have been set up.
Russian products can still be found in small shops that survived the occupation. And the city is still adorned with banners touting Russian propaganda like “Ukrainians and Russians are one nation,” or encouraging Ukrainians to get Russian passports.
Some Ukrainians swear aloud as they pass the remnants of war.
The humiliating Russian retreat did not end the rumors of war in Kherson. About 70% of the wider Kherson region is still in Russian hands. Explosions are heard regularly, although residents are not always sure whether they are from demining work or from the clash between Russian and Ukrainian artillery.
On Saturday evening, two missiles hit an oil depot in Kherson – the first time a depot has been 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 fire trucks and ambulances as they retreated, leaving local authorities scrambling for resources to respond to the attacks.
“There was a loud explosion,” said Valentyna Svyderska, who lives nearby. “We were afraid, everyone was afraid… Because it’s an army that is at war against the civilian population.”
Earlier in the day, people were excitedly awaiting the arrival of the first train to Kherson since the early days of the invasion. Mykola Desytniakov, 56, has not seen his wife since leaving for Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, with their two daughters in June.
Desytniakov stayed behind to care for his sick parents, he said, holding a single rose and peering anxiously over the platform.
“She’s going to scold me, she doesn’t like flowers,” he said of his wife. “But I’ll give them to him anyway.”
Ludmila Olhouskaya had no one to meet but went to the station anyway to show her support.
“It’s the start of a new life,” the 74-year-old said, wiping away tears of joy. “Or rather, the rebirth of an ancient.”
A major obstacle to the return of people to Kherson and the reconstruction effort will be clearing any mines the Russians have placed inside offices and around critical infrastructure, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
“Demining is needed here to bring life back,” said Mary Akopian, deputy interior minister. Kherson has a bigger mine problem than any other city that Ukraine has reclaimed from the Russians because it has been occupied for the longest time, she said.
Akopian estimated that it would take years to completely clear the mines from the city and surrounding province. Already, 25 people have died cleaning up mines and other explosives left behind.
Before retreating, Russian soldiers looted shops and businesses – and even museums. The Ukrainian government estimates that 15,000 artifacts were stolen from museums in the Kherson region and taken to Crimea, itself 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, mined and looted all the towns and villages.”
Despite ongoing fighting nearby, residents of Kherson are confident enough of their safety to ignore air raid warning sirens and gather in large numbers in the streets to greet each other and thank Ukrainian soldiers.
Like many locals, the Nenadyschuks do not wince when they hear explosions in the distance, and they are loath to complain about any other difficulties they face.
“We are holding on. We are waiting for victory. We will not complain,” Yulia Nenadyschuk said. “All of Ukraine,” added her husband, “is in this state now.”
Sam Mednick contributed to this story.
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