I haven’t been to Cherson for a year. Returning home after such a long time would have been heartbreaking even in peacetime. But my hometown is a home in the middle of a war. In mid-November, the Ukrainian army returned to Cherson, and the Russian forces withdrew to the other, left bank of the Dnipro River.

Since then, the townspeople have been hugging Ukrainian soldiers every day, asking for autographs, queuing for water and humanitarian aid. They learn how to hide from artillery fire and talk about their lives during the nine-month occupation.

Cherson remains a closed city, access is restricted. The military and police are talking about “stabilization measures”. Journalists and humanitarian workers are only allowed in and out under military escort.

The highway to the neighboring regional capital, Mykolaiv, is becoming increasingly busy. You can see columns of trucks with food, fuel, emergency generators and humanitarian aid. In some places the road has been bombed out, detours lead over dirt roads that are hardly passable in the November rain. “Dear friends, where are you going, there’s a lot of mud there,” says an elderly woman in the village of Kiseliwka, pointing to a stuck mail van.

The remains of the famous Antonivsky Bridge, the largest in Cherson, still stretch across the Dnipro. Russian troops crossed this bridge into the city at the end of February – and blew it up as they left. An older graffito evokes the Russian “victory”, a fresher inscription insults the occupiers.

If you stand unprotected in the open air for just a short time, shots will be fired directly from the other bank of the river. The Russian soldiers have set up their positions there, near the town of Oleshki. Ukrainian soldiers from a nearby checkpoint hide us under a bridge and advise us to move on quickly.

Between the checkpoints, the residents of Cherson are torn between the joy of liberation and the fear of a new phase in the war, this time as a Ukrainian city in close proximity to the front.

Not all residents, say the soldiers, have fully grasped this. There is no functioning warning system against air raids, no safe shelters. But now the Russian army is firing on Cherson from the other bank.

Explosions can be heard more and more often in the urban area. Civilian infrastructure buildings are hit, as are army buildings and residential buildings. There are first dead and injured among the civilians.

Meanwhile, on Perekopska Street, two men tear down a large poster praising Russian annexation. The Russians put up posters like this all over the city, the men say. “We still have at least a week’s work to do,” says one of them.

Yuri Savchuk carefully folds parts of the poster together. He is the director of a museum dedicated to Ukraine during World War II. Savchuk returned to Kherson in the first days after liberation to document the current war. “I’ve already conducted 50 interviews,” says the historian proudly.

And the willingness to talk is actually great. Almost everyone willingly tells their story of resistance. Serhiy Anatoliyovich, a retired doctor, offers to show me a “torture chamber” of the Russian occupiers. It lies in a former detention center, one of the places where the Russian administration imprisoned opponents of the regime. Police officers are standing at the entrance, and inside investigators are documenting signs of torture.

“In the mornings, the Russian anthem could be heard from there, and the detainees were forced to sing it,” recalls a saleswoman from a neighboring shop. “In the evening there were terrible screams.” After the liberation, someone wrote “Glory to Ukraine and its Armed Forces” on the door.

Before they left, Russian military mined many houses. Now demining squads work in many public buildings – even in the city library. The Russian secret service SBU was quartered here. A police station could not be cleared completely and was blown up to be on the safe side.

The Russian army itself blew up other objects of critical infrastructure before its withdrawal. In Kherson there is no running water, no electricity. People with buckets and bottles are queuing at the private wells, which are still intact. Mobile communications and the Internet are only gradually coming back. Starlink terminals have been delivered in the first few days, people are gathering at some public hotspots. “Only 64 people can dial in at the same time,” warns a sign in Park of Fame.

The Russians also blew up the radio tower in Cherson. He was the first to be occupied by them to shut down Ukrainian television. Now Vladimir, an elderly man in a camouflage jacket, guards what remains of the tower. Wladimir suffers from a herniated disc, but he definitely doesn’t want to go to the hospital. “If I’m not here,” he says, “who’s going to look after all this? There is valuable equipment here, metals. I don’t want anyone to steal this.”

Vladimir tells that before the Russian invasion in a suburb of Kherson he registered with the territorial defense. He then informed the Ukrainian side about Russian troop movements to a strategically important airport nearby. “I crouched in a cemetery and pretended to mourn my wife,” he says. “I noted everything and passed everything on to our Ukrainian scouts. I said there were two fans and five meat cans in a store. That was our secret code for helicopters and troop carriers.”

Most of the supplies in Kherson have not yet been restored. Residents spend their time in queues to get water, internet access or Ukrainian SIM cards. The first day of liberation was celebrated at Freedom Square.

There are still concerts every day, but most people now prefer to stand in line to get free toiletries, food, warm clothing and medicine. There are still some Russian products in the shops, mainly drinks or cigarettes, but they are becoming fewer and fewer. The sellers say there have been no subsequent deliveries since October.

Autor: Ihor Burdyga

The original for this post “Return to a liberated city” comes from Deutsche Welle.