Celebrations have erupted in Kherson, Ukraine, after the Russian army completely withdrew from the city, the only regional capital it had captured since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
As Ukrainian troops entered the city on Saturday Nov. 13 after eight months of Russian occupation, residents flooded the streets to welcome the soldiers with hugs, song, dance and tears of joy.
“I cannot even speak, I am so full of emotions, I cannot believe that it (liberation) has happened, God, please, bless us,” a resident named Lyudmila told Reuters, while fighting back tears.
Ukrainian authorities are now rushing to restore critical infrastructure, including electricity and water, which most homes have been left without.
Kherson had been one of the four partly occupied areas of Ukraine that Putin had announced Russia would annexed in September after holding sham referendums in the regions.
Some residents were forced to vote at gunpoint, according to the New York Times.
Russian authorities had tried to “Russify” the city under its occupation, introducing a Russian currency, forcing teachers to adopt a “Russian curriculum” and bringing in local businesses, according to the New York Times.
It also set curfews, warning that those who broke them could be shot.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to the city on Monday Nov. 14, telling reporters that it was necessary to visit Kherson to support the residents, calling the liberation of the city the “beginning of the end” of the war with Russia.
“The military takes risks every day, journalists take risks. I think it is necessary to be here and talk about Kherson residents, to support people. To make them feel that we are not only talking about it, but we are really returning, really raising our flag,” he said, according to CNN.
“I would also like, in a human way, to get the emotion, the energy from people. It is motivating,” he added.
Speaking to a crowd in the city’s main square, Zelensky also joked that he had visited the city because he “wanted a watermelon,” which are grown in Kherson and have become a popular Ukrainian symbol of resistance.
The retreat in Kherson is create a major setback to Russia’s war effort and has increased criticism in Russia’s leadership.