KHERSON (AFP/APP): Ukrainians in the liberated southern city of Kherson expressed relief on Sunday after months of Russian occupation.
Residents said the Russians left a trail of destruction, laying mines and going on a looting spree before their withdrawal. An animal rights group said Moscow’s forces had even stolen a racoon, wolves and squirrels from a local zoo. “God will punish them. All of them. For everything they did,” said Svitlana Vilna, 47.
Ruined buildings and destroyed military vehicles could be seen at the entrance to the strategic Black Sea port city where battles raged just days ago. A smell of burning wood wafted through the air.
In a humiliation for the Kremlin, the Russian army withdrew from the city on Friday.
Kherson was one of four regions in Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed in September.
There were no scenes of jubilation in Kherson on Sunday, an AFP correspondent said, but many locals said they felt a great sense of relief after Kyiv had wrested back control of the city. Residents queued to get food, and many adults and children walked around wrapped in Ukrainian flags.
Some gathered on the city’s main square, mostly to use Starlink satellite internet and connect with relatives.
“I need to get in touch with my family,” said Klavdia Mych, a retired teacher. “We have been without water for a week,” the 69-year-old added. “And they say everything is mined. It is very scary.”
Viktoria Dybovska, a 30-year-old sales clerk, said the Russians “took everything with them”.
“They cleared out the stores,” she added. “They switched off the lights three or four days ago just as they were leaving. They simply vanished overnight,” said Antonina Vysochenko, 29.
Oleksandr Todorchuk, founder of the organisation UAnimals, said Russian troops had stolen animals from a local zoo.
“They have taken most of the zoo’s collection to Crimea: from llamas and wolves to donkeys and squirrels,” he said on Facebook.
Sergii Zatirko, 65, called the Russian troops “pigs,” saying they had left a lot of rubbish behind.
“We want to clean up everything as soon as possible so that nothing will remind us of these beasts,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that before fleeing Kherson, the Russians “destroyed all critical infrastructure — communication, water supply, heat, electricity.”
Ukrainian television broadcasts have resumed and officials said on Saturday that authorities were working to de-mine the city, record Russian crimes and restore power supplies.
On Saturday, in the village of Pravdyne, outside Kherson, returning locals embraced their neighbours, with some unable to hold back tears.
“Victory, finally!” said Svitlana Galak, who had lost her eldest daughter in the war.
“Thank god we’ve been liberated and everything will now fall into place,” the 43-year-old told AFP.
Several disabled anti-tank mines and grenades could be seen in the settlement, which is home to a Polish Roman Catholic church, with a number of damaged buildings also visible.
While de-mining is carried out, a curfew has been put in place and movement in and out of the city has been limited, local authorities said.
- Missile fire –
The city of Kherson was the first major urban hub to fall after Russia invaded in February.
Zelensky has said Kyiv has established control over more than 60 settlements in the region.
Ukraine’s police chief Igor Klymenko said on Saturday that around 200 officers were erecting roadblocks and recording “crimes of the Russian occupiers”.
He urged Kherson residents to watch out for possible landmines laid by the Russian troops, saying one policeman had been wounded while de-mining an administrative building.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian army said that Russia’s troops had kept building fortifications on the left bank of the Dnipro River where they had withdrawn.
Overnight, Russian forces fired S-300 missiles at the right bank of the Dnipro but there were no casualties, the army said.
Kherson’s full recapture opens a gateway for Ukraine to the entire Kherson region, with access to both the Black Sea in the west and the Sea of Azov in the east.
- ‘What was it all for?’ –
Shunned by the West over his offensive in Ukraine, Putin, 70, will not travel to Indonesia for the G20 leaders’ summit next week.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the “remarkable courage” of Ukraine’s military and people, and vowed US support “will continue for as long as it takes” to defeat Russia.
In London, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Moscow’s “strategic failure” in Kherson could prompt Russians to question the war.
“Ordinary people of Russia must surely ask themselves: ‘What was it all for?'”