Ukrainians dance and sing in Kherson to celebrate Russia’s withdrawal: NPR

Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister (center), signs a Ukrainian flag belonging to a Kherson resident on Monday. “The success of Ukraine depends on two points,” Malyar told NPR. “First our strength, our ability to fight. And then the weapons we get from our partners,” referring to the United States and other Western nations.

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Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister (center), signs a Ukrainian flag belonging to a Kherson resident on Monday. “The success of Ukraine depends on two points,” Malyar told NPR. “First our strength, our ability to fight. And then the weapons we get from our partners,” referring to the United States and other Western nations.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

KHERSON, Ukraine — Since Russian troops withdrew from Kherson last week, the city’s Liberty Square took on a carnival-like atmosphere.

Residents now regularly converge on the main square to celebrate the end of more than 8.5 months of Russian occupation. People draped in yellow and blue Ukrainian flags dance, chant and sing patriotic songs. Children and adults are dizzy.

“We are so happy right now!” says Valentyna Banishevska, 65. “Before [the Russian withdrawal], Kherson was like a ghost town. Nobody was in the streets. People were scared.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense last week commanded its approximately 30,000 troops in western Kherson to retreat to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. On Friday, the Ukrainian army began to enter the strategic southern port city and met with cheering crowds.

“The first time I saw cars waving Ukrainian flags last week, I couldn’t believe it,” Banishevska said. “We thought it was some kind of provocation. We didn’t believe it.”

Sixty-five-year-old Kherson resident Valentyna Banishevska in Kherson on Monday. “We are so happy right now!” she told NPR. “Before [the Russian withdrawal], Kherson was like a ghost town. Nobody was in the streets. People were scared.” Banishevska says when she realized Kherson was actually liberated, she and her neighbors danced in the streets.

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Sixty-five-year-old Kherson resident Valentyna Banishevska in Kherson on Monday. “We are so happy right now!” she told NPR. “Before [the Russian withdrawal], Kherson was like a ghost town. Nobody was in the streets. People were scared.” Banishevska says when she realized Kherson was actually liberated, she and her neighbors danced in the streets.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

Under Russian occupation, residents only had access to Russian internet, Russian television and Russian mobile phone service. Communicating with relatives or friends in other parts of Ukraine, locals say, was nearly impossible, as was getting accurate information about the war.

Banishevska says that when she realized Kherson was in fact liberated, she and her neighbors danced in the streets.

The President made a surprise visit

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an unexpected visit in Kherson and marched triumphantly through the streets of the city. He was greeted by hundreds of people shouting his name and “Glory to Ukraine!”

Later, Zelenskyy said the fall of the strategic southern port city was a key moment in the war.

“We are arriving step by step in all the temporarily occupied territories of our country”, he said. “It’s tough, it’s a long hard road. Our country’s best heroes are in this war.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is visiting Kherson on Monday.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is visiting Kherson on Monday.

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Nataliya Makhanko applauded Zelenskyy and confesses to NPR that she had no idea he was coming to Kherson. She had just walked her dog, Marshmallow, and saw the crowd.

“We don’t have electricity. We don’t have water,” Makhanko said. “It was very hard. But now we feel free! It’s incredible.”

She says that when the city was under Russian control, she felt cut off from the world. “When we went to the market, we felt uncomfortable,” she says. “Like it’s not our town anymore.”

Western weapons were essential

On Monday, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar also showed up at the square. An elderly woman asked Malyar to kiss her and said, “I can’t believe you’re real!” Other residents, much to the chagrin of her heavily armed security, lined up to take selfies with her.

Malyar told NPR that the counter-offensive in this region would not have been possible without the weapons donated by the United States and other Western countries.

“The success of Ukraine depends on two points,” Malyar says, as young boys crowd to admire the rifles of his bodyguards. “First our strength, our ability to fight. And then the weapons we receive from our partners.”

Civilians carrying Ukrainian flags celebrate the withdrawal of the Russian army on Monday in Independence Square in Kherson.

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Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

She says Western missile systems allowed Ukrainian forces to strike Russian supply lines deep inside territory. Disrupting the flow of Russian ammunition, food and other supplies to the front lines, she says, has significantly weakened Moscow’s troops. Malyar says this was an important factor in Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in the south of the country.

Behind her, in the center of the square, a group of girls who look about 8 or 9 years old, wave a Ukrainian flag larger than them and start singing. It’s “Oh, the red viburnum in the meadow”, a patriotic ukrainian march of the early 20th century, which become a symbol of the war.

Singing it was forbidden in Crimea after Russia captured the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Despite the festive mood in central Kherson in recent days, many residents say the more than eight months of Russian occupation have been frightening. Several people say that friends and family members have disappeared after being detained by the Russian occupation forces. A man has tears in his eyes when he talks about the fear that he or a loved one could disappear in Russian custody.

Part of the joy in the city now, he says, is that that fear has been lifted.

Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.

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