Ukraine returns to Kherson: "We have been waiting for you for so long." A report from the liberated city


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April 21, 2023

Ukraine returns to Kherson: “We have been waiting for you for so long.” A report from the liberated city

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

The inhabitants of Kherson greet the Ukrainian soldiers who have recaptured the city after more than eight months of Russian occupation. They also tell stories of Russian violence. Our correspondent, Paweł Pieniążek, is one of the first foreign journalists on the spot.

Photo by Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine

Loud music, dancing, shouts of joy mixed with tears. People gathered in the central square of Kherson wave blue and yellow flags, drape themselves in them or just hold them in their hands. Emotions run high among those gathered. Drivers honk. A group of young people dance to electronic music played from a car.

Each soldier who appears draws applause from the crowd. They chant, “Thank you!” and “ZSU”, the Armed Forces of Ukraine. One woman says to another: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a policeman.” Military cars are almost plastered with people wanting to give high fives, as well as express their gratitude to every person in uniform. Every now and then someone comes up to the soldiers and asks if they can give them a hug. The hugs are long and sincere. “We’ve waited so long for you,” they all repeat.

16-year-old Oksana, wrapped in a flag, runs with her friend, 17-year-old Anna, to hug the policemen who have just arrived in Kherson. The city in which 290,000 people lived until February 24 was under occupation for more than eight months. On November 11, Russian troops left the city, and soon the first Ukrainian soldiers appeared in it. The teens spent this whole time in Kherson.

“The whole time that the occupiers were here, we barely went out into the streets, because it was unpleasant to be around such people, and now our troops are here so we can go out joyfully,” says Anna.

She left the house around 1 pm after her brother said there were Ukrainian flags in the streets and he would go out to shout “Glory to Ukraine!” She decided to join to show her support for the country. The tricolor Russian flags have indeed disappeared from the streets, replaced by blue and yellow ones.

Anna had a flag hung on the wall in her room the whole time.

“When the Russians came to my house and asked about it, I told them that I am a patriot of my country, just like they are patriots of theirs,” she admits. The Russians were to accept this answer with silence and leave her house.

Oksana claims she was accused by the occupation authorities of guiding Ukrainian artillery. She talks about how she was taken from her home, locked in a building where the Russians were stationed, and electrocuted. They released her after more than a day, because they did not find any confirmation of their accusations. Other residents also say that they suffered physical violence from the Russians.

Also standing in the square are 65-year-old Olha and 72-year-old Halyna. The women, like the rest of the crowd, are overjoyed.

“We hope that this victory is forever,” says Olha.

“And may they never come back,” adds Halyna.

“So that people can embrace each other, say kind words to each other and tell only happy news,” continues Olha.

She was afraid to go out on the streets for a long time. She did not believe that the Russians had actually disappeared. Not long after she dared, a relative who serves in the army came to visit her. She couldn’t believe she was seeing him with her own eyes.

“He was in Kyiv and now he is liberating us. I couldn’t believe it,” says Olha.

Yevhen and Yulia are standing next to each other in the square. They are both 39 years old. They are both crying, unable to hold back the tears. Yevhen speaks about how the Russians once pulled him out of his car, put a gun to his head and ordered him to hand over his documents. Yulia burst into tears and begged them not to do anything to him. She managed to convince them. By May, they had had enough of the constant checks and restrictions, they tried to leave the city, but failed to get out. They decided to stay because they believed that Ukraine would return. They managed to wait it out.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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