“We are not slaves, we are Ukrainians,” shout the freed residents of Kherson in Ukraine. Since last March, when Russian forces occupied the city of Kherson, the air in the region has become stifling, heavy, “foreign”. In the past 24 hours, everything has changed. The inhabitants of Kherson have no water to wash, they freeze in their homes due to the lack of energy, they have no internet to communicate with the outside world. Nevertheless, despite not having even the basics that the modern world takes for granted, a huge smile and tears of joy have “taken over” their face. The air of freedom is now theirs, their city is now theirs, and the Russian yoke does not weigh upon their souls. However, there is still a long way to go before they say “we won”.
People flock to the central square of the newly liberated city, draped in Ukrainian flags, singing and chanting “Freedom for Ukraine.” “Everyone here is celebrating in the square here. People are wearing the Ukrainian flag, they’re hugging the soldiers, they’ve come out to see what it’s like to have freedom,” said Katerina, who described the liberation as the “best day” of her life after eight months under Russian occupation.
A Ukrainian Special Forces soldier, who gave his name only as Daniel, told CNN how his unit was the first to reach Kherson. “My commander put the flag on top of the building,” he said. “It was a real blast for us, after all. Before November 11, it was five days of hard work, really hard work. The Ukrainian soldiers, as always, have just confirmed again that they are stronger than the Russians.” He added that civilians in Kherson are the “real heroes” who endured so long under Russian occupation. “I can’t imagine how happy they are right now,” she said.
On Friday, Russia announced it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnipro River in the strategic southern region of Kherson, leaving the regional capital of the same name and surrounding areas to the Ukrainians.
The retreat represents a major blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital to be captured by Russian forces since the February invasion. Their retreat east along the Dnieper cedes large swathes of land that Russia has occupied since the first days of the war and that Putin had officially declared as Russian territory just five weeks ago.