Kherson, Ukraine (CNN) — For eight months, residents of the Ukrainian city of Kherson have been living under brutal Russian occupation. But on Friday, Ukrainian forces stormed the city and Russian troops withdrew east.
Residents have no water, no Internet connection and little electricity. But when a CNN crew entered the city on Saturday, the mood was euphoric.
As the crew filmed live in Kherson’s central square, some sang the national anthem while others shouted “Slava Ukrayini!” – Glory to Ukraine, a patriotic salute.
“We feel free, we are not slaves, we are Ukrainians,” resident Olga told CNN.
When Russian troops arrived at the start of the war, this was a town that tried to resist: They took people away, tortured them, disappeared them, residents said.
“We were terrified of [el] Russian Army, we were terrified by the soldiers who can enter our house at any moment, enter our house, just open the door, as if they were living here, and rob, kidnap, torture,” Olga said.
But now, people flock to the central square of the newly liberated city, draped in Ukrainian flags, chanting and shouting “Freedom for Ukraine.”
“Everyone here is celebrating in the square here. People are carrying the Ukrainian flag, they are hugging the soldiers, they have come out to see what it is like to have freedom,” Robertson said. The CNN team appeared to be the first international journalist to arrive in the Kherson city center since it changed hands in the last 48 hours.
“We feel free. We are not slaves. We are Ukrainians, we are proud of it”@NicRobertsonCNN talk to people inside the recently liberated Ukrainian city of Kherson https://t.co/MaEsaJyvjK pic.twitter.com/btCucScZVW
—CNN (@CNN) November 12, 2022
On Friday, Russia announced that it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnipro River in the strategic southern region of Kherson, leaving the regional capital of the same name and surrounding areas to the Ukrainians.
The withdrawal represents a major blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only regional capital in Ukraine that Russian forces had captured since the February invasion. His retreat east across the Dnipro gives up large tracts of land that Russia has occupied since the first days of the war and that Putin had formally declared Russian territory just five weeks ago.
“It was a very difficult time for everyone. All Ukrainian families were waiting for our soldiers, our army,” a Kherson resident told CNN on Saturday, recalling the months of Russian occupation.
The woman said she felt “amazing” seeing Ukrainian troops in Kherson.
“We feel your support every day, thank you very much,” the woman added, before hugging Robertson.
On Friday night, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a nightly video of celebrations in the city, where a crowd waved flags and chanted “ZSU,” the Ukrainian acronym for the armed forces.
Earlier in the day, the Ukrainian army’s southern operational command said Russian forces had been “urgently embarking on boats that appear fit to cross and attempt to escape” across the river.
It was not clear if all Russian troops had left Kherson and the region in general. Serhiy Khlan, a member of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, said the city was “almost under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” but warned that some Russian troops may have remained in civilian clothes.
He warned that many Russian troops “threw away their military uniforms and are now hiding in civilian clothes.”
CNN’s Nic Robertson reported from Kherson and Amy Woodyatt wrote from London. CNN’s Mick Krever, Anna Chernova, Teele Rebane, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Tim Lister and Sophie Tanno contributed reporting.