Liberated Kherson celebrates as Ukrainians prepare for an uncertain future

ODESA, Ukraine — The Ukrainian city of Kherson is rapidly coming back to life after more than 8 1/2 months under Russian occupation.

Despite the lack of water and electricity, residents return to the streets to joyfully celebrate. Work teams are rushing to set up mobile phones, Wi-Fi and electrical connections. Demining teams are trying to clear areas around critical infrastructure, including major roads, railways and power plants.

Freedom Square in the center of Kherson turned into a makeshift carnival and a center for the distribution of humanitarian aid. People decorated with Ukrainian flags sing patriotic songs. Ukrainian soldiers are feted like heroes: locals hug them, young boys ask for autographs and military patches. Children race around a statue wrapped in a new yellow and blue flag.

“The first day when everyone already knew [the Russian occupation] it ended, everyone kissed and hugged,” says Mariya Kryvoruchko. “We are so happy!”

But despite the current joy, residents describe a horrific occupation in which speaking Ukrainian could be detained and people disappeared without a trace.

“Honestly, I was scared,” says Kryvoruchko. “At various times I believed we would be liberated. Other times I didn’t believe it.”

She says every night she heard the screams of prisoners held at a local police station less than a block from her home.

“Deep down, I’m still scared. I don’t believe Putin and I’m afraid of him.”

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Top: A woman gratefully touches Maksym, a soldier of the 140th Independent Reconnaissance Brigade.  Bottom left: A soldier signs Ukrainian flags in the central square of Kherson.  Bottom right: Maxim hugs children in the central square of Kherson.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Top: A woman gratefully touches Maksym, a soldier of the 140th Independent Reconnaissance Brigade. Bottom left: A soldier signs Ukrainian flags in the central square of Kherson. Bottom right: Maxim hugs children in the central square of Kherson.
A damaged portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside a police station that Kherson residents say was used as a detention and torture center by the Russians.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A damaged portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside a police station that Kherson residents say was used as a detention and torture center by the Russians.
A burnt bed in a police station where, according to residents of Kherson, the Russians detained and tortured persons violating the curfew and those suspected of collaborating with the Ukrainian authorities.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A burnt bed in a police station where, according to residents of Kherson, the Russians detained and tortured persons violating the curfew and those suspected of collaborating with the Ukrainian authorities.
People crowd around a truck distributing medical aid in Kherson on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

People crowd around a truck distributing medical aid in Kherson on Wednesday.
A team from the Ukrainian State Rescue Service searches for mines and unexploded ordnance next to a highway in Posad-Pokrovske, a village halfway between Mykolaiv and Kherson, on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A team from the Ukrainian State Rescue Service searches for mines and unexploded ordnance next to a highway in Posad-Pokrovske, a village halfway between Mykolaiv and Kherson, on Wednesday.
A billboard in the city of Kherson calls on residents to vote yes to the widely condemned September referendum held under Russian occupation to decide whether the region should join the Russian Federation.  The alleged results of the referendums led to Russia's formal annexation of the Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A billboard in the city of Kherson calls on residents to vote yes to the widely condemned September referendum held under Russian occupation to decide whether the region should join the Russian Federation. The alleged results of the referendums led to Russia’s formal annexation of the Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.
Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law's dog, Sana, in Kherson on Wednesday.  Kryvoruchko describes the occupied city as living in "vacuum," and says she heard screams from a makeshift detention center less than a block from her home.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law’s dog, Sana, in Kherson on Wednesday. Kryvoruchko describes the occupied city as living in a “vacuum” and says she heard screams from a makeshift detention center less than a block from her home.
Left: Men in ISP uniforms work on wires.  Kherson's infrastructure for basic services was destroyed, leaving the city largely without electricity, water, heat and internet.  On the right: a woman moved after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in Buzkovy Park, the site where Russian troops murdered Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers on March 1.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Left: Men in ISP uniforms work on wires. Kherson’s infrastructure for basic services was destroyed, leaving the city largely without electricity, water, heat and internet. On the right: a woman moved after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in Buzkovy Park, the site where Russian troops murdered Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers on March 1.
A destroyed bridge near recently liberated Klapay, about 12 miles from the city of Kherson, on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A destroyed bridge near recently liberated Klapay, about 12 miles from the city of Kherson, on Wednesday.
Graffiti depicts Valery Zaluzhny, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in the central square of Kherson.  The inscription reads "God and chief Załużny are with us."

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Graffiti depicts Valery Zaluzhny, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in the central square of Kherson. The inscription reads: “God and chief Zaluzhny are with us.”
Local youth wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags in the recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Local youth wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags in the recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, people visit a makeshift memorial in the central square of recently liberated Kherson.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

On Wednesday, people visit a makeshift memorial in the central square of recently liberated Kherson.

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