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.”
Residents of Kherson talk about the "silent terror'' that defined their occupation, which was different than the devastating military siege 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 it illegally annexed in 2014, and shortly after that, it was occupied.
People mostly communicate in Russian in Kherson. Early on in the war some residents there were tolerant of neighbors who sympathised with Russia, but over the past nine months there has been a palpable shift, 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.
When Russian soldiers retreated on 11 November from Kherson, the only regional capital Moscow captured since the invasion began on 24 February, they left a city devoid of basic infrastructure -- water, electricity, transportation or communications.
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 people curse out loud when walking past them.)
Many shops, restaurants and hotels are stills closed and many people are out of work. But residents have been drawn downtown this past week by truckloads of food from Ukrainian supermarket chains that have arrived and internet hotspots that have been set up.
While people were euphoric immediately after the Russian withdrawal, Kherson remains a city on hold.
A major obstacle to bringing residents back to Kherson, and to the rebuilding effort, will be clearing all of the mines that the Russians placed inside administrative offices and around critical infrastructure, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
“Demining is needed here to bring life back,” said Mary Akopian, Ukraine's deputy minister of internal affairs. She says Kherson has a bigger problem with mines than any of the other cities Ukraine has liberated from the Russians because it had been under occupation for the longest period of time.
She estimated it would take years to completely clear mines from the city of Kherson and surrounding areas. Already, 25 people have died clearing mines and other explosives left behind in Kherson, and dozens of civilians who hastened to return home were killed by mines.
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 nearby Crimea.
“There is, in fact, nothing there,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelensky's office, wrote in his Telegram channel after a trip to the Kherson region. “The Russians killed and mined and robbed all cities and towns.”
The humiliating Russian retreat did not bring an end to the sounds of war in Kherson. About 70% of the wider Kherson region is still in Russian hands. Explosions can regularly be heard in the city, although locals aren't always sure whether its part of the mine-removal effort, or the sound of Russian and Ukrainian artillery.
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.”