KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — Residents of Kherson celebrated the end of Russia’s eight-month occupation Sunday for the third day in a row as they took stock of the widespread devastation left by the Kremlin’s retreating forces in the southern Ukrainian city .
Jubilant crowds gathered on Kherson’s main square, although the roar of artillery fire could be heard in the distance as Ukrainian troops fought to drive back Moscow’s invading forces.
“It’s a new year for us now,” said Karina Zaikina, 24, who tied a yellow and blue ribbon in Ukrainian national colors on her coat. “For the first time in months, I’m not afraid to go into town.”
“Finally, free!” said 61-year-old resident Tetiana Hitina. “The city is dead.”
But even as locals rejoice, evidence of a brutal Russian occupation is everywhere, with Russian troops still controlling 70 percent of the wider Kherson region.
With cellphone networks down, Zaikina and others lined up to use a satellite phone connection for everyone in the square, enabling them to exchange news with family and friends for the first time in weeks.
Stores in the city center were closed. During the Russian occupation, many people fled the city, and the city streets were sparsely populated. Many of the few who ventured out on Sunday carried yellow and blue flags. In the square, people lined up to ask the soldiers to sign their flags and reward them with hugs. Some people cried.
To make matters worse, Kherson also has no electricity or running water, and food and medical supplies are in short supply. Residents say Russian troops looted the city during their withdrawal last week, taking away the loot. They also damaged vital public infrastructure before retreating across the wide east bank of the Dnieper. A Ukrainian official described the situation in Kherson as “a humanitarian disaster”.
“I don’t understand what kind of people this is. I don’t know why they are doing this,” said Yevhen Trezhenko, a resident draped in a Ukrainian flag.
Still, he said, once the Russians left, “it became easier to breathe”.
“There’s no better holiday than what’s happening right now,” he declared.
Ukrainian authorities said demining of critical infrastructure was ongoing in the city. Kherson region governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said reconnecting the electricity supply was a priority and gas supplies had been secured.
Russia’s withdrawal marked a triumphant milestone in Ukraine’s push back against Moscow’s invasion nearly nine months ago. Over the past two months, the Ukrainian military claims to have recaptured dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to keep up the pressure on Russian forces to appease people in Ukrainian cities and villages still under occupation.
“We don’t forget anybody; we don’t leave anybody,” he said.
Ukraine’s retake of Kherson is a major setback for the Kremlin and the latest in a series of battlefield embarrassments. About six weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine in violation of international law and declared them Russian territory.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv tweeted on Sunday comments from national security adviser Jack Sullivan, who described Kherson’s turnaround as an “extraordinary victory” and a “very remarkable thing” for Ukraine.
The reversal came despite Putin’s recent mobilization of some reservists, increasing the number of troops by about 300,000. This made it difficult for the Russian military to digest.
The Washington-based Institute for War Research commented: “Russian military leadership is working to integrate combat units from many different organizations, with many different types and levels of skill and equipment, into a more cohesive fighting force in Ukraine, But largely failed.” , a think tank that tracks the conflict
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Kremlin would be “concerned” by losing Kherson, but warned against underestimating Moscow. “If they need more cannon fodder, they will,” he said.
Ukrainian police have called on residents to help identify collaborators with the Russian military. Ukrainian police returned to the city Saturday along with the public broadcasting service. Ihor Klymenko, head of Ukraine’s national police, said about 200 officers were working in the city, setting up checkpoints and recording evidence of possible war crimes.
The Russian-appointed administration of the Kakhovka district east of the city of Kherson announced Saturday that it could be the next area to fall as Ukraine advances into territory annexed by Moscow.
“Today, the government is the No. 1 target of Ukrainian attacks,” said Moscow-appointed Kakhovka leader Pavel Filipchuk. “As an authority, we are moving to a safer area and we will lead the region from there.”
Kakhovka is located on the east bank of the Dnieper River, upstream of the Kakhovka Hydropower Station.
John Leicester from Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.
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