Cherson comes to life after the Russian withdrawal

KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — A week after the liberation of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, residents cannot escape the memories of the horrific eight months they spent under Russian occupation: missing people, mines everywhere, closed shops and restaurants, a Lack of people, electricity and water – and explosions day and night as Russian and Ukrainian forces fight on the other side of the Dnieper.

Despite these difficulties, residents of Kherson express a mixture 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 lit up with happiness as she recalled the day Ukrainian soldiers entered the city.

Cherson’s population has shrunk to around 80,000 from its pre-war level of nearly 300,000, but the city is slowly coming to life. 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 their homes or fear that contact with Russian soldiers could lead to a prison or a torture cell. They gather in the city’s squares – adorned with blue and yellow ribbons on their bags and jackets – to charge phones, fetch water or talk to neighbors and relatives.

“If we got through the occupation, we’ll get through this without any problems,” said Yulia Nenadyshuk, 53, who has been huddled at home with her husband Oleksandr since the start of the Russian invasion but now comes downtown every day.

The worst deprivation was the lack of freedom to be yourself, which is 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 watched, you couldn’t even look around.”

Kherson residents speak of the “silent terror” that defined their occupation, which was unlike the devastating military siege that reduced other Ukrainian cities — such as Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk — to rubble.

Russian troops entered Kherson in the early days of the war from nearby Crimea, which illegally annexed it in 2014, and shortly after it was occupied.

In Kherson, people mainly communicate in Russian. At the beginning of the war, some residents were tolerant of neighbors who were sympathetic to Russia, but over the past nine months there has been a noticeable shift, pharmacist Smoliana said. “I’m even ashamed to speak Russian,” she said. “They have oppressed us emotionally and physically.”

Many people fled the city, but some simply disappeared.

Khrystyna Yuldasheva, 18, works in a shop across from a building used by Russian police as a detention center where Ukrainian officers are investigating allegations of torture and abuse.

“There’s no one here anymore,” she told a woman who stopped by recently looking for her son.

Others wanted to leave but couldn’t. “We tried to leave three times, but they closed all possible exits out of town,” said Tetiana, 37, who asked not to be used by her last name.

When Russian soldiers withdrew from Kherson on November 11, the only regional capital Moscow had captured since the invasion began on February 24, they left a city without basic infrastructure — water, electricity, transportation or communications.

Russian products can still be found in small shops that survived the occupation. And the city is still adorned with banners promoting Russian propaganda, such as “Ukrainians and Russians are one nation,” or encouraging Ukrainians to get Russian passports. (Some people swear loudly as they pass them.)

Many shops, restaurants and hotels are still closed and many people are unemployed. But residents have been drawn downtown over the past week by truckloads of groceries 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.

According to the Interior Ministry, a major obstacle to the return of residents to Kherson and reconstruction will be the clearing of all mines that the Russians have placed in administrative offices and near critical infrastructure.

“De-mining is necessary here to bring life back,” said Mary Akopian, Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister. She says Kherson has a bigger problem with mines than any other city that liberated Ukraine from the Russians because it was occupied the longest.

She estimated that it would take years to completely clear the mines in and around the city of Kherson. Already 25 people have died clearing mines and other explosives left in Kherson, and dozens of civilians rushing to return home have been killed by mines.

Before retreating, Russian soldiers looted shops and stores – and even museums. The Ukrainian government estimates that 15,000 artifacts were stolen from museums in the Kherson region and taken to nearby Crimea.

“In fact there is nothing there,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelenskyy’s office, wrote on his Telegram channel after a trip to the Kherson region. “The Russians have killed, mined and robbed all cities and towns.”

The humiliating Russian retreat did not end the din of war in Kherson. About 70% of the wider Kherson region is still in Russian hands. Explosions can be heard regularly around the city, though locals aren’t always sure if they’re part of demining efforts or the sound of Russian and Ukrainian artillery.

Despite ongoing fighting nearby, the people of Kherson feel confident enough to ignore airstrike warning sirens and gather in large numbers on the streets – to greet each other and thank Ukrainian soldiers.

Like many residents, the Nenadyshuks don’t flinch when they hear the explosions in the distance, and they don’t like to complain about other difficulties they face.

“We’ll hold on. We are waiting for victory. We won’t whine,” Yulia Nenadyshuk said. “All of Ukraine,” her husband added, “is in this state now.”

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Follow all AP stories on the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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