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

Local people react to a volunteer from Odesa distributing aid on the main square in front of the Regional Administration Building in Kherson on Wednesday.
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Local people react to a volunteer from Odesa distributing aid on the main square in front of the Regional Administration Building in Kherson on Wednesday.

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

Despite still being without water or electricity, residents are returning to the streets for joyous celebrations. Work crews are hastily setting up cellphone, Wi-Fi and electrical connections. Demining teams are attempting to clear areas around critical infrastructure including the main roads, rail lines and power plants.

Liberty Square in the center of Kherson has turned into a makeshift carnival and humanitarian aid distribution hub. People draped in Ukrainian flags sing patriotic songs. Ukrainian soldiers are feted as heroes: Residents hug them, young boys beg for autographs and military patches. Kids race around a monument wrapped in new yellow-and-blue bunting.

"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 terrifying occupation in which speaking Ukrainian could get you detained and people disappeared without a trace.

"Honestly I was afraid," Kryvoruchko says. "At different moments I believed we would be liberated. Other times I didn't believe."

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

"Deep in my soul, I'm still afraid. I don't believe Putin and I'm afraid of him."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Top: 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 Kherson's central square.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Top: 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 Kherson's central square.
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
/
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 in a police station that Kherson residents say Russians used to detain and torture violators of curfew and people suspected of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
A burned cot in a police station that Kherson residents say Russians used to detain and torture violators of curfew and people suspected of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities.
People crowd around a truck distributing medical aid in Kherson on Wednesday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
People crowd around a truck distributing medical aid in Kherson on Wednesday.
A crew from the Ukrainian State Emergency Service searches for mines and unexploded ordnance next to a highway in Posad-Pokrovske, a village halfway between Mykolaiv and Kherson city, on Wednesday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
A crew from the Ukrainian State Emergency Service searches for mines and unexploded ordnance next to a highway in Posad-Pokrovske, a village halfway between Mykolaiv and Kherson city, on Wednesday.
A billboard in Kherson city urges residents to vote yes in the widely denounced September referendum that was held under Russian occupation to decide whether the region should join the Russian Federation. The purported results of the referendums led to Russia's formal annexation of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
A billboard in Kherson city urges residents to vote yes in the widely denounced September referendum that was held under Russian occupation to decide whether the region should join the Russian Federation. The purported results of the referendums led to Russia's formal annexation of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law's dog, Sana, in Kherson on Wednesday. Kryvoruchko describes the city under occupation as like living in a "vacuum," and says she could hear screaming from a makeshift detention center less than a block from her house.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law's dog, Sana, in Kherson on Wednesday. Kryvoruchko describes the city under occupation as like living in a "vacuum," and says she could hear screaming from a makeshift detention center less than a block from her house.
Left: Men in uniforms from an internet provider work on elevated wires. Kherson's infrastructure for basic services has been destroyed, leaving the city largely without electricity, water, heat and internet. Right: A woman becomes emotional after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in Buzkovy Park, on the spot where Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers were killed by Russian forces March 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Left: Men in uniforms from an internet provider work on elevated wires. Kherson's infrastructure for basic services has been destroyed, leaving the city largely without electricity, water, heat and internet. Right: A woman becomes emotional after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in Buzkovy Park, on the spot where Ukrainian territorial defense volunteers were killed by Russian forces March 1.
A destroyed bridge near recently liberated Klapaya, about 12 miles outside Kherson city, on Wednesday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
A destroyed bridge near recently liberated Klapaya, about 12 miles outside Kherson city, on Wednesday.
Graffiti depicts Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, in Kherson's central square. The inscription reads, "God and the chief Zaluzhnyi are with us."
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Graffiti depicts Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, in Kherson's central square. The inscription reads, "God and the chief Zaluzhnyi are with us."
Local youth drape themselves in Ukrainian flags in recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Local youth drape themselves in Ukrainian flags in recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.
People visit a makeshift monument on the central square of recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
/
Pete Kiehart for NPR
People visit a makeshift monument on the central square of recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

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Pete Kiehart
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.