“My city, where I was born and lived my whole life, is finally free,” says 17-year-old Nastia Stepenska with tears in her eyes in Kyiv. She will return to her home region as soon as “it is possible and safe”.
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared on Friday evening that Kherson once again belongs to “our people”. Russia had previously announced the complete withdrawal of its troops from the capital of the region of the same name in southern Ukraine. This ended almost nine months of Russian occupation.
The news that Ukrainian soldiers have arrived in the city of Kherson causes a rare burst of joy in Kyiv, with music in the streets and honking of horns. Celebrating people march to Maidanplatz on Friday evening, wrapped in Ukrainian flags, hugging each other and popping champagne corks.
“It’s the best surprise ever,” says Artem Lukiv. The 41-year-old also comes from Cherson and admits that he did not expect his city to be liberated so quickly. “We’ve been waiting for this for nine months,” he says. “We’re really happy.”
The situation in the liberated areas is similar. “We see happy, smiling faces,” reports Andriy Scholob, commander of a paramedic unit about 50 kilometers from Cherson. “We get flowers, embroidered cloths that we put on our vehicles,” he told the AFP news agency on the phone. “We see children running up to greet us.”
Scholob admits that there are certainly people in the region in southern Ukraine who regret the Russian withdrawal. Luckily he hasn’t met any of them yet, says the trained orthopedist from Lviv.
Another Ukrainian soldier who has just moved into the city of Kherson with his comrades has shared videos of his arrival with AFP. One shot shows a young woman shouting “Glory to Ukraine” and blowing kisses to the soldiers.
Another video shows dozens of people standing next to a bus stop decorated in the national colors, greeting the soldiers with applause and flowers and shouting “our rescuers”. That’s how it is everywhere, says the soldier. On their way to Cherson, they saw burned Russian equipment, “a lot of destroyed agricultural equipment” and destroyed houses. In addition – the Ukrainian authorities warn – the Russian army could have left booby traps behind.
In Kyiv, however, such warnings are irrelevant. Ukrainians who fled Cherson from the Russian occupiers also celebrate in front of the Victory Column, which commemorates independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Together they sing the Ukrainian national anthem and wipe away tears of joy. And people keep calling out the numbers of the Ukrainian army brigades, which were the first to conquer Cherson after nine months of Russian occupation.