Residents of Kherson gathered in Kyiv’s Maidan Square on Friday, Nov. 11, to celebrate the liberation of their home city — the first outpouring of joy in the capital in nearly nine months of war.
“My city, where I was born and where I’ve lived my whole life, is finally free,” said 17-year-old Nastia Stepenska, her eyes welling with tears.
“When (the Russians) arrived, it was horrible. We didn’t know what was going to happen the next day or if we’d even still be alive,” the school student said, admitting she was in a state of shock.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Kherson was “ours” after Russia announced the completion of its withdrawal from the regional capital, the only one Moscow had captured since its invasion began on Feb. 24.
The city could open a gateway for Ukraine’s forces to the entire Kherson region, with access to both the Black Sea in the west and Sea of Azov in the east.
“I’ll go back when it’s possible and it’s safe,” said Stepenska. “Soon, I hope.”
The announcement that Ukrainian forces were entering Kherson sparked a rare flurry of joy in Kyiv, music in the streets and blaring car horns.
– ‘Best surprise ever’ –
Kherson inhabitants who left for Kyiv when Russian soldiers captured their city in March began converging on Maidan Square at 7:00 pm, draped in flags, popping champagne corks and hugging each other.
“I didn’t believe it at first. I thought it would take weeks or months, a few hundred metres at a time. And in just one day, they’ve made it into Kherson. It’s the best surprise ever,” said 41-year-old Artem Lukiv.
“I told my kids, ‘That’s it. We’ve been liberated,’ and we all started crying,” he said, hugging his two children and a Ukrainian flag at the same time.
Under the square’s victory column commemorating Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kherson’s displaced residents belted out the national anthem in unison and wiped their tears.
Then they chanted the numbers of the first Ukrainian army brigades to enter Kherson — the first major urban hub to fall to the Russians and the first to be taken back.
“We’re really happy… Our soldiers are gods,” Lukiv said.
“We’ve been waiting for this for nine months. Kherson belongs to Ukraine and it always will.”