KHERSON, Ukraine — Residents of Kherson celebrated the third Sunday in a row the end of eight months of occupation by Russia while taking stock of the extensive damage inflicted on the southern Ukrainian city by retreating Kremlin forces.
A cheering crowd gathered in Kherson’s main square, despite the distant bang of artillery fire that could be heard as Ukrainian forces continued their efforts to push back Moscow’s invading forces.
“It’s a new year for us now,” said Karina Zaikina, 24, who wore a yellow and blue ribbon in Ukraine’s national colors on her coat. “For the first time in many months, I wasn’t afraid to come into town.”
“Freedom at last!” said 61-year-old resident Tetiana Hitina. “The city was dead.”
But even when locals rejoiced, evidence of Russia’s ruthless occupation was omnipresent, and Russian forces still control about 70% of the wider Kherson region.
After cellular networks went down, Zaikina and others queued up to use a satellite phone connection that was set up for everyone on the pitch, allowing them to share news with family and friends for the first time in weeks.
Downtown businesses were closed. Since many people had fled the city during the Russian occupation, the city’s streets were sparsely populated. Many of the few people who set out on Sunday carried yellow and blue flags. People lined up in the square to ask soldiers to sign their flags and rewarded them with hugs. Some cried.
Even grimmer, Kherson is also without electricity or running water, and food and medical supplies are scarce. Residents said Russian troops sacked the town and carted away loot as they retreated last week. They also destroyed vital public infrastructure before retreating across the broad Dnieper to its east bank. A Ukrainian official described the situation in Kherson as “a humanitarian catastrophe”.
“I don’t understand what kind of people they are. I don’t know why they did that,” said local resident Yevhen Teliezhenko, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag.
Still, he said, “it got easier to breathe” after the Russians left.
“There is no better holiday than what is happening now,” he declared.
Ukrainian authorities said demining of critical infrastructure in the city was underway. Restoring power is a priority as gas supplies are already secured, said Kherson regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevich.
The Russian withdrawal marked a triumphant milestone in Ukraine’s defense against Moscow’s invasion nearly nine months ago. In the past two months, the Ukrainian military has claimed to have recaptured dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised to keep up the pressure on Russian forces and reassured people in the still occupied Ukrainian towns and villages.
“We don’t forget anyone; we won’t leave anyone,” he said.
Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson was a major setback for the Kremlin and the latest in a series of embarrassing battlefield situations. It came about six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine and declared them Russian territory.
The US Embassy in Kyiv on Sunday tweeted comments from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who called the turnaround in Kherson “an extraordinary victory” for Ukraine and “a pretty remarkable thing.”
The reversal came despite Putin’s recent partial mobilization of reservists, increasing troop strength by about 300,000. That was hard for the Russian military to take.
“Russia’s military leadership largely tries and fails to integrate combat forces from many different organizations and with many different types and levels of capabilities and equipment into a more coherent force in Ukraine,” commented the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, a Think tank tracking the conflict.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Kremlin was “concerned” about the loss of Kherson but warned against underestimating Moscow. “If they need more cannon fodder, they will,” he said.
Ukrainian police called on residents to help identify collaborators with the Russian armed forces. Ukrainian police officers returned to the city on Saturday along with public broadcasting services. Ukraine’s national police chief Ihor Klymenko said about 200 officers are deployed in the city, setting up checkpoints and documenting evidence of possible war crimes.
In what may be the next district to fall in Ukraine’s march onto Moscow-annexed territory, the Russian-appointed administration of the Kakhovka district, east of the city of Kherson, announced on Saturday that it would evacuate its staff.
“Today, the government is the number one target for Ukrainian attacks,” said Moscow-based Kakhovka leader Pavel Filipchuk. “We as an agency are moving to a safer area from where we will run the district.”
Kakhovka is located on the east bank of the Dnieper, upstream of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station.
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