For eight months, the citizens of the Ukrainian city of Kherson lived under the brutal rule of the Russians. But on Friday, Ukrainian troops entered the city and Russian troops retreated to the east.
Residents have no water, no internet connection and little power. But as the CNN crew rolled into town on Saturday, the mood was upbeat.
As the team filmed live in central Kherson, some in the crowd of residents sang the national anthem and others shouted “Slava Ukraini!” – glory to Ukraine, a patriotic greeting.
“We feel free, we are not slaves, we are Ukrainians,” resident Olga told CNN.
Locals have also been climbing on top of buildings, including a cinema, in the square to hoist Ukrainian flags. Driving soldiers are greeted with cheers and asked to sign autographs on the flags.
Back when the Russian army started the war, this was a city that tried to resist: people were taken, tortured, disappeared, residents said.
“We were terrified [the] “Russian soldiers, we were scared soldiers can come to our house, our home at any time – just open the door, as if they live here, then steal, kidnap, torture,” said Olga.
But now, people are flocking to the central square in the newly liberated city, wrapped in Ukrainian flags, singing and chanting “Freedom of Ukraine.”
“Everyone here is out celebrating in the square here. “People wear the Ukrainian flag, hug the soldiers, come out to see what it’s like to be free,” said Robertson.
Katerina described the release as “the best day” of her life after eight months under Russian rule. “Our city is free, my street is free,” he told CNN.
Another local resident named Andrew said he was very happy to see the Ukrainian soldiers.
“I think many people have been killed here. At the moment we don’t know that,” he said while still working.
A Ukrainian Special Forces soldier, who gave his name only as Daniel, told CNN that his unit was the first to arrive in Kherson. He said: “My boss put the flag on the top of the building.
“It was a real blast for us at the end. Before 11 [of November], it was five days of hard work, real hard work. The Ukrainian military, as usual, proved once again that they are stronger than the Russians. ”
He added that the citizens of Kherson are “real heroes” who have lived under Russian rule for a long time. “I can’t imagine how happy they are right now,” he said.
A CNN team appeared to be the first international journalists to arrive in Kherson city center since it changed hands 48 hours ago.
On Friday, Russia announced it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnipro River in the southern Kherson region, leaving the regional capital of the same name and surrounding areas to Ukrainians.
The setback represents a major blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson is the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces have captured since the February invasion. Their retreat east across the Dnipro frees large swaths of territory that Russia has held since the early days of the war, and that Putin had officially declared as Russian territory five weeks ago.
“It was a very difficult time for everyone. All Ukrainian families are waiting for our soldiers, our soldiers,” one resident of Kherson told CNN on Saturday, recalling months of Russian operations.
The woman said it felt “surprising” to see Ukrainian soldiers in Kherson.
“We have heard your support every day, we are very grateful,” added the woman, before hugging Robertson.
Speaking Saturday on the next steps of the Ukrainian military, CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton said: “This is going to be a big urban operation. What you will see is a methodical operation to clear buildings that could be traps and mines.
“One thing that the people of Ukraine will have to do is that they will have to advance their plans to be able to fight against any Russian weapons that may be on the east bank of the Dnipro River.
“You see that the Ukrainians have moved to that bank of the river, now they control that area, they will have to gather the remaining Russian forces that did not leave the west bank of the Dnipro River. But those who are there are likely to surrender or actually be removed from the war. ”
On Friday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a nighttime video of celebrations in the city, where the crowd waved flags and chanted “ZSU,” the Ukrainian acronym for armed forces.
Earlier in the day, a Ukrainian military commander operating in the south said Russian troops were “quickly loading boats that appeared to be ready to cross and try to escape” across the river.
It was unclear whether all Russian troops had left Kherson and the wider region. Serhiy Khlan, a member of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, said the city was “almost under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces” but warned that some Russian soldiers might remain in civilian clothes.
He warned that many Russian soldiers “have abandoned their military uniforms, and are now hiding in civilian clothes.”