Freedom fragile in newly liberated Kherson Freedom fragile in newly liberated Kherson
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Freedom fragile in newly liberated Kherson

    NHK Johannesburg Bureau Chief
    NHK World
    Producer
    When Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops out of Kherson in November, their victory was hailed as a turning point in the nine-month conflict. But now, the southern city's residents must try to piece their lives back together.

    We arrive in Kherson on November 16, two days after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted a photo on social media of his own visit. His appearance in the reclaimed city became a focus of pride for all Ukrainians.

    As icy winds herald the onset of winter, residents remove evidence of the occupation. They tear down signs proclaiming Russian control, though plenty are still visible throughout the city.

    Many buildings in Kherson have been destroyed by shelling. (Video)
    Slogans read, "Kherson is a Russian town" and "Kherson will stay with Russia forever."

    We see signs advising residents of "voting day" in late September. That was when Russia held what they called a referendum on the annexation of four Ukrainian states. President Vladimir Putin unilaterally announced in September that all four voted to become Russian territory. Ukrainian leaders and Western nations dismissed the polls as shams.

    Residents rejoice

    Less than two months later, Kherson has been liberated.

    People waving at the bus (video)

    The city's residents seem overjoyed to see us. They keep waving, as if to convince themselves that the eight-month Russian occupation is really over.

    The central part of Kherson (video)

    Thousands have gathered around the central town square, holding up or draping themselves in the Ukrainian flag. They approached us one after another and asked to take a picture.

    A watermelon, a specialty of Kherson, was at the middle of the square. The residents even asked me to hold one and pose for a photo.

    NHK correspondent Shoichiro Beppu holding a watermelon.

    The 'air of freedom'

    The jubilation is in stark contrast to the bleak conditions under Russian control.

    Lyudmila Honorova, 57, stayed in Kherson with her husband after Russia seized the city. She says soldiers would harass them by checking their cell phones, or breaking into their garage under the pretext of an "investigation".

    Lyudmila Honorova, stayed in Kherson after Russia seized the city.

    "Whenever I walked down the street, I tried not to look at the Russians in the eyes," she says. "My neighbors who live near the prison said they could hear the screams of people being tortured. It was terrifying."

    Overcoming the trauma will take time. But for now, Lyudmila says she's simply relieved.
    "I'm just happy." She takes a deep breath. "See, this is the air of freedom."

    'My favorite anime'

    Some of the children in Kherson greet us in Japanese, saying "Konnichiwa!"

    Some of the local boys greeted us in Japanese (video)

    I met 14-year-old Danilo, a fan of Japanese anime. He reels off some popular titles and speaks of his relief that the occupation is over.

    "The Russian soldiers behaved like they owned the place and just stole anything they wanted," he says. "I'm glad they're gone now."

    Infrastructure destroyed

    The people of Kherson say the Russians destroyed much of what they could not steal.

    The invaders laid waste to the town's infrastructure on their way out, severing vital electricity and water supplies.

    People have been forced to wait in long lines to fill buckets with water. Damage to communications infrastructure has made it nearly impossible to access the internet or use mobile phones.

    Desperate to contact family and friends, people have been scouring the city for spots where they can get reception.

    Temporary places were made to provide Internet access, where people used their smartphones to look up information and keep in touch with family and acquaintances.

    "I heard we could get a signal around here," said a 32-year-old woman who had come to the center of the city. "I was finally able to get through to my relatives."

    Land littered with mines

    The fleeing Russians also buried many landmines in Kherson and surrounding areas. The Ukrainians have been clearing them from the approach to the city, and we regularly heard explosions.

    Removing landmines (video)

    Soldiers have already removed many large anti-tank mines. They are prioritizing demining others from around power plants and essential infrastructure.

    "We can't start rebuilding until they are all removed," one official says. "We're trying to clean up as quickly as possible."

    Relief arriving

    Relief goods for Kherson are now flowing in.

    People flocked to get medicine (video)

    Aid groups have delivered medical supplies and other essentials. We see dozens of people crowding around a vehicle dispensing pharmaceuticals. One woman pleads for anti-fever drugs for her child.

    But continuous shelling by the Russians makes it difficult for the locals to get on with their lives. The Ukrainian government confirmed that 1 citizen was killed and 4 were injured by shelling on November 21, five days after our visit.

    In November, missiles and drone attacks left more than 10 million Ukrainians without power. On November 15 alone, Russia fired more than 90 missiles.

    Kherson has been liberated, but the threat remains. An "air of freedom", yes. But no one is breathing easily.