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: missing people, 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 these hardships, Kherson 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, or talk with neighbors and relatives.
“If we survived the occupation, we will survive this without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyschuk, 53, who had been 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.”