Kherson celebrates freedom with Zelensky

Residents who remained in the southern Ukrainian city poured into the streets after the occupiers left. In a surprising appearance, President Selenski talks about the beginning of the end of the war – the euphoria is huge throughout the country.

In the central squares of the city of Kherson, Ukrainian patriots celebrate the end of the Russian occupation.

Ukrainians still do not believe in peace in Kherson. On Monday, authorities ordered residents to avoid Freedom Square in the center as debris would be cleared. But the residents of Kherson are not impressed: hundreds of people draped in Ukrainian and European flags gather in front of the “White House” of the city administration. Complete strangers laugh at each other in the street, which is even more unusual in the post-Soviet region than anywhere else.

These are the emotions that have been held in Kherson for eight months since liberation. “I wanted to shout ‘Glory to Ukraine’ and tie a flag on my head,” Olexandra Wetitnikova describes her state of mind during the occupation, which ended on Friday with a surprisingly quick Russian withdrawal. She learned more by accident, from her father, who noticed the Ukrainian soldiers while fishing. “I couldn’t stop crying for an hour,” says the 21-year-old with tears in her eyes.

Ukrainian Olexandra Vetitnikova on Freedom Square in Kherson.

Ukrainian Olexandra Vetitnikova on Freedom Square in Kherson.

Selenski’s surprise appearance

The euphoric mood in Freedom Square rose when President Volodymyr Zelensky suddenly appeared in front of the crowd with his bodyguard and quickly immersed himself in it. His unannounced appearance may have been the main reason for the Ukrainian demining hoax. As in the eastern city of Izyum, which was liberated in September, military leaders salute the supreme commander to the sounds of the national anthem. Some of the assembled sing, though the majestic pathos does not quite match the tone of the festive mood.

Territories occupied by Russia

Crimea (annexed by Russia)

Zelenskiy calls the conquest of Kherson the beginning of the end of the war. While the front remains close, attention is now likely to shift further east given the liberation of the right bank of the Dnieper and the importance of the river as a natural obstacle. When asked where the army will go next, the president half-jokingly answers: “Not to Moscow. We are not interested in another country’s territory.” Russia sees it differently: In response to the revelations, the Kremlin reaffirmed its claim to Kherson.

However, Russia can hardly influence the reality on the ground – apart from the artillery fire that can be heard almost every minute. The projectiles hit uncomfortably close, the fighting in the area is intense. However, the city itself remained largely intact; Landscapes of ruins, such as those around Kyiv or in the Donbass, are absent in Kherson. Ukrainian residents also do not confirm reports that the occupiers left countless mines and explosives in the regional center when they left. In any case, the streets are full of happy strollers on this warm summer day.

Big damage

The newly established civil-military administration is nevertheless faced with enormous tasks. The pro-Ukrainian stance of the city’s estimated 70,000 remaining residents should make it easier to discover potential Russian sleeper cells. Rebuilding the infrastructure is increasingly difficult: after the systematic destruction by the retreating Russians, Kherson has no running water, electricity or internet. In any case, the operator was only able to keep the promise that there will be mobile phone reception again in the center on Monday.

Anschela Pavlova is relishing the opportunity to go out again after months of Russian occupation.

Anschela Pavlova is relishing the opportunity to go out again after months of Russian occupation.

At least the gas supply is still working, although residents hope it will continue to be when it cools down and demand increases. Uncertainty about the approaching winter has already prompted the new administration to urge residents to evacuate. But in the current euphoria that is felt throughout the country, such thoughts are far removed from people.

“It’s not about material comfort,” says Anschela Pavlova, who walks her husband and dog on the other side of Náměstí Svobody in front of the “Ukraine” cinema. During the occupation, they just sat at home, waiting and hoping, he says while playing with his dog. When her husband begins to report on the atmosphere of lawlessness under the occupiers, Pavlova interrupts him. “We don’t want to talk about it now. I just want to soak up the positive energy here.” She doesn’t seem ready to answer the anxious questions shared by tens of thousands of people who are no longer in the city.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyi visited the city of Kherson three days after its liberation.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyi visited the city of Kherson three days after its liberation.

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