Photos: Liberated Kherson celebrates as Ukrainians prepare for an uncertain future

ODESA, Ukraine – The Ukrainian city of Kherson is quickly coming back to life after more than 8 1/2 months under Russian occupation.

Although there is still no water or electricity, residents are returning to the streets for happy celebrations. Work teams hastily set up cell phone, WiFi and power connections. Demining teams attempt to clear areas around critical infrastructure, including major roads, railway lines and power plants.

Freedom Square in central Kherson has been transformed into a makeshift carnival and humanitarian aid distribution hub. People wrapped in Ukrainian flags sing patriotic songs. Ukrainian soldiers are celebrated as heroes: local residents hug them, boys beg for autographs and military badges. Children run around a memorial draped in new yellow and blue pennants.

“On the first day when everyone knew [the Russian occupation] was over, everyone kissed and hugged,” says Mariya Kryvoruchko. “We are so happy!”

But despite the current joy, residents describe a horrific occupation, during which speaking Ukrainian could be arrested and people disappeared without a trace.

“To be honest, I was scared,” says Kryvoruchko. “At different moments I believed that we would be freed. Other times I didn’t believe.”

Every night she heard screams from prisoners being held less than a block from her home at the local police station, she says.

“Deep down in my soul, I’m still scared. I don’t believe Putin and I’m scared of him.”

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Above: A woman touches Maksym, a soldier from the 140th Separate Reconnaissance Brigade, in gratitude.  Bottom left: A soldier signs Ukrainian flags in Kherson's central square.  Bottom right: Maksym hugs children in the central square of Kherson.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Above: A woman touches Maksym, a soldier from the 140th Separate Reconnaissance Brigade, in gratitude. Bottom left: A soldier signs Ukrainian flags in Kherson’s central square. Bottom right: Maksym hugs children in the central square of Kherson.
A damaged portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside a police station that Kherson residents say was used by Russians as a detention and torture center.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A damaged portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside a police station that Kherson residents say was used by Russians as a detention and torture center.
A burned cot at a police station where Kherson residents say Russians have detained and tortured curfew violators and people suspected of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A burned cot at a police station where Kherson residents say Russians have detained and tortured curfew violators and people suspected of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities.
People crowd around a truck distributing medical aid in Kherson on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

People crowd around a truck distributing medical aid in Kherson on Wednesday.
A crew from Ukraine's state rescue service searched for mines and unexploded ordnance next to a highway in Posad-Pokrovske, a village halfway between Mykolaiv and the city of Kherson, on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A crew from Ukraine’s state rescue service searched for mines and unexploded ordnance next to a highway in Posad-Pokrovske, a village halfway between Mykolaiv and the city of Kherson, on Wednesday.
A billboard in the city of Kherson urges residents to vote yes in September's widely criticized referendum held under Russian occupation to decide whether the region should join the Russian Federation.  The alleged results of the referendums led to the formal annexation of the Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions by Russia.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A billboard in the city of Kherson urges residents to vote yes in September’s widely criticized referendum held under Russian occupation to decide whether the region should join the Russian Federation. The alleged results of the referendums led to the formal annexation of the Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions by Russia.
Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law's dog, Sana, on Wednesday in Kherson.  Kryvoruchko describes the occupied city as a life in one "Vacuum," and says she heard screams from a makeshift detention center less than a block from her home.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law’s dog, Sana, on Wednesday in Kherson. Kryvoruchko describes the occupied city as living in a “vacuum” and says she heard screams from a makeshift detention center less than a block from her home.
Left: Uniformed men from an internet provider work on overhead power lines.  Kherson's basic infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving the city largely without electricity, water, heating and the Internet.  Right: A woman gets emotional after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in Buzkovy Park, at the spot where Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers were killed by Russian forces on March 1.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Left: Uniformed men from an internet provider work on overhead power lines. Kherson’s basic infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving the city largely without electricity, water, heating and the Internet. Right: A woman gets emotional after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in Buzkovy Park, at the spot where Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers were killed by Russian forces on March 1.
A destroyed bridge near the recently liberated Klapaya, some 12 miles outside the city of Kherson, on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A destroyed bridge near the recently liberated Klapaya, some 12 miles outside the city of Kherson, on Wednesday.
Graffiti depicting Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in Kherson's central square.  The inscription reads, "God and the chief Zaluzhnyi are with us."

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Graffiti depicting Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in Kherson’s central square. The inscription reads: “God and the chief Zaluzhnyi are with us.”
Local youth wrap themselves in Ukrainian flags in recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

Local youth wrap themselves in Ukrainian flags in recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.
People visit a makeshift memorial in the central square of recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

People visit a makeshift memorial in the central square of recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

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