At Liberty Square in Kherson, residents gather, trying to find wifi near the temporary wireless internet towers and charging points. There is limited phone connection and no internet to read the news and find out what is going on outside this recently liberated region. During their withdrawal after nine months of occupation, Russian forces blew up the TV tower and the power grid, so there is no electricity to charge devices either.
Yet the mood is celebratory in the square today, as locals wave Ukrainian flags and banners marking the liberation. It has been seven days since Ukrainian troops re-entered the city, but Ukrainian soldiers, police, social services, foreign reporters and anyone who has arrived from outside the city are still greeted warmly.
“I am so happy to be at home,” says one woman. “Home? Are you not from Kherson?” I ask. “At home means in Ukraine,” she says, and hugs me.
Sasha, 13, has come with her father, Viktor, to charge their phones. She has spent the last few days with her classmates from school waving at the military cars passing by. I am struck by her definition of freedom: “When the Russians were here, we had to walk with our heads down, not looking in front of us,” she says. “Now we are back in Ukraine we can raise our heads up and feel we’re free.” Her father nods.
Another woman, Halnya, recalls the Russian occupation. “At checkpoints the Russians would ask us: ‘Why are you in a bad mood?’. How should I have answered them? What do you say to people who go on to buses with machine guns – that if they were not here, our lives would be better?”
About 280,000 people lived here in Kherson – the regional capital, now back in Ukrainian control – before the Russians came. According to the Office of the President, 80,000 people remain.
“I was shocked when I saw so many people on the streets, I didn’t know so many residents stayed,” says Svitlana, who is 75. “There were always just us pensioners on the streets, as the youngsters were afraid to be captured and detained, and stayed inside. Now they’re all back.” Many people I meet say that this is the first time since February that they have come into town; they were too afraid to come while the Russians were here.