For eight months, residents of the Ukrainian city of Kherson have lived under brutal Russian occupation. But on Friday, Ukrainian forces raided the city and Russian troops retreated to the east.
Residents have no water, no internet connection and little electricity. But when a CNN crew rolled into town on Saturday, the mood was euphoric.
As the crew filmed live in Kherson’s central square, some in the crowd of locals sang the national anthem while others shouted “Slava Ukrayini!” – glory to Ukraine, a patriotic salute.
“We feel free, we are not slaves, we are Ukrainians,” resident Olga told CNN.
Locals have also climbed to the tops of buildings, including the cinema, in the square to erect Ukrainian flags. Passing soldiers are greeted with applause and asked to sign autographs on the flags.
Back when the Russian troops arrived at the start of the war, this was a town trying to resist – the people were taken away, tortured, disappearedsay the residents.
“We were terrified by [the] Russian army, we were terrified of soldiers who can enter our house at any moment, our house – just open the door, as if they live here, and steal, kidnap, torture,” Olga said.
But now, people are pouring into the central square of the newly liberated city, draped in Ukrainian flags, chanting and chanting “Freedom for Ukraine.”
“Everyone here is out celebrating in the square. People are wearing the Ukrainian flag, they are hugging soldiers, they have come out to see what it is like to have freedom,” Robertson said.
Katerina described the liberation as the “best day” of her life after eight months under Russian occupation. “Our city is free, my street is free,” she told CNN.
Another local resident named Andrew said he was so happy to see the Ukrainian soldiers.
“I think a lot of people were killed here. We just don’t know yet,” she said of the time under occupation.
A soldier of the Ukrainian special forces, who gave his name only as Daniel, told CNN how his unit was the first to arrive in Kherson. “My commander put the flag on top of the building,” he said.
“It’s been a blast for us, finally. Before 11 [of November], it’s been five days of hard work, really hard. The Ukrainian soldiers, as always, have just confirmed that they are stronger than the Russians.”
He added that civilians in Kherson are the “real heroes” for having held out for so long under Russian occupation. “I can’t imagine how happy they are right now,” she said.
The CNN team appears to have been the first international reporter to reach downtown Kherson since it changed hands in the past 48 hours.
On Friday, Russia announced it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnipro River in the strategic southern region of Kherson, leaving the regional capital of the same name and surrounding areas to the Ukrainians.
The retreat represents a major blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only regional Ukrainian capital that Russian forces had captured since the February invasion. Their retreat east across the Dnipro gives up large swathes of land that Russia has occupied since the war’s early days and that Putin formally declared 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 Kherson resident told CNN on Saturday, recalling the months of Russian occupation.
The woman said it was “amazing” to see Ukrainian troops in Kherson.
“We have felt your support every day, thank you so much,” added the woman, before embracing Robertson.
The Ukrainian authorities are working to restore the city to “normal life,” the head of the regional military administration, Yaroslav Yanushevich, said in a video message on Saturday, adding that the military administrations of the city, oblast and district have arrived in the city. and homework started.
“The National Police and the Security Service of Ukraine have also taken up their duties. The State Emergency Situations Service is demining. We are working on the return of the city to normal life,” said Yanushevich.
About 200 police officers are currently working in the city, the Ukrainian National Police said in a statement on Saturday.
“Checkpoints have been set up around and in the Kherson Territory. The regional police continue to record the crimes of the Russian occupiers,” the statement read.
The main threat comes from mines, police said, adding that explosives technicians are working on their detection and disposal. “One of the police sappers was injured today while clearing an administrative building in Kherson,” police said.
Residents who have left Kherson are advised “not to rush back until stabilization measures are completed,” police said.
Speaking on Saturday about the next steps for the Ukrainian military, 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 that will be found on the east bank of the Dnipro River.
“You can see the Ukrainians have moved to that river bank, now they are controlling that area, they will have to mop up some remaining Russian forces that failed to get out of the west bank of the Dnipro River. But those that are there are likely to either surrender or essentially be eliminated from the fight.
On Friday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released a nighttime video of festivities in the city, where a crowd waved flags and chanted “ZSU”, the Ukrainian acronym for the armed forces.
Earlier that day, the Ukrainian Army’s Southern Operational Command said Russian forces were “urgently loading boats that look suitable for crossing and trying to escape” across the river.
It was unclear whether all Russian troops had left Kherson and the wider region. Serhiy Khlan, a member of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, said the city was “almost under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces” but warned that some Russian troops may be left in civilian clothes.
He warned that many Russian troops “have thrown away their military uniforms and are now hiding in civilian clothes”.