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.
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.
Less than two months later, Kherson has been liberated.
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.
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.
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".
"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!"
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."
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.
"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.
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 goods for Kherson are now flowing in.
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.