On November 11, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated the regional capital of Kherson, which had been under Russian occupation since early March. Three days later, President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to the city, where he was greeted by crowds of cheering residents. Newsweek was on the scene.
In the area around the regional administration building, the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag was omnipresent—fluttering in the breeze, stenciled onto the exterior of buildings, or worn as a cape by citizens simply walking the street. Only four days prior, the Russian tricolor still dominated this space. Now Kherson residents are confident that it will never return.
Less than two months ago, after a “referendum” that featured armed men forcing residents to participate at gunpoint, Russia declared that Kherson would be under the Kremlin’s control “forever.” On Heavenly Hundred Street, a billboard still reads “we are together with Russia!” Similar billboards around the city have already been scratched all but illegible by motivated citizens.
Although he admits that “plenty of people here, especially older people, supported Russia,” security guard Vadim and his pensioner wife, Tatyana, were against the Russian occupation from day one. Vadim has scars from where he was burned by a flashbang grenade during an anti-Russian protest back in March. The couple posed in front of a felled television tower, which Russian forces demolished in the days immediately preceding withdrawal from Kherson city this past Friday.
Another pensioner, retired journalist Vladimir, spoke of how he always carried two phones during the occupation, “one to present to Russian soldiers at checkpoints, and another to gather material about Russian crimes and Ukrainian resistance.” The banner that Russian occupiers hung from the facade of the Kherson State Maritime Academy behind Vladimir still bears the seal of the Soviet Union.
Despite the general state of euphoria in the city, Kherson still remains without electricity, running water, and mobile phone connection as a result of fleeing Russian forces sabotaging the municipal infrastructure. Local residents, after expressing their general satisfaction about the occupiers having left the city, often turn to kitchen table questions as to when basic services will finally be restored. Some, like those above, have taken to collecting jugs of water from the Dnieper River and carrying it back home in order to bathe and do laundry.
Even under conditions of material deprivation, the mood Kherson is one of triumph. Local schoolchildren collect the signatures of Ukrainian soldiers patrolling the streets, and the soldiers respond by handing out humanitarian aid.
Still, the situation is markedly worse in many of the smaller towns and villages in Kherson region. While the regional capital itself changed hands twice in the past nine months without suffering significant physical damage, the same cannot be said for many smaller settlements in its vicinity. The lights will inevitably come back on in the city of Kherson; regular life in the surrounding areas, however, could take years more to rebuild.
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