Zelenskyy's arrival in Kherson underscores Ukraine's momentum in the war
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The mayor of Kyiv says Russia is bombarding Ukraine's capital once again. Mayor Vitali Klitschko says two residential buildings have been hit by missiles. The new Russian strikes come just days after Russian forces evacuated the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit yesterday to the recently liberated city. NPR's Jason Beaubien was there as crowds welcomed their president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Zelenskyy, Zelenskyy, Zelenskyy...
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: President Zelenskyy was given a hero's welcome in the center of Kherson, a city that, just two months ago, Moscow claimed it was annexing into the Russian Federation. And until just last week, Kherson was the only regional capital Russia controlled. Zelenskyy didn't address the crowd directly, but his presence underscored Ukraine's determination to claw back every bit of territory that Russia has seized since its February 24 invasion. Much of the civilian population of Kherson fled during the 8 1/2 months of occupation, or they were evacuated by Moscow's forces in the days and weeks prior to the Russian retreat. But for the people who stayed - and particularly the people who came out yesterday to the center of town - there's jubilation that Kherson is now back under Ukrainian control.
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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Ukrainian).
BEAUBIEN: Natalya Mykonko (ph) said she didn't know that Zelenskyy was coming. She'd just been out walking her dog, Marshmallow, and saw the crowd.
NATALYA MYKONKO: (Through interpreter) We don't have electricity. We don't have water. It is very hard, but we feel free. And it's just - it's incredible.
BEAUBIEN: The central square of Kherson that was named Liberty Square, even before the war, yesterday felt like a carnival.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Ukrainian).
BEAUBIEN: People sang Ukrainian folk songs. Boys draped in yellow and blue flags asked Ukrainian soldiers for their autographs. Kherson was seized quickly in the first days of the war and abandoned by Russia almost as fast. The lack of heavy fighting for control of the city has left the center of Kherson pretty much unscathed. This is in contrast to other cities that suffered major damage from shelling and airstrikes.
Ukraine's deputy minister of defense, Hanna Malyar, arrived with Zelenskyy and posed with residents for selfies. Malyar stresses that Ukraine is up against Moscow's much larger military, and she says the counter-offensive in this region would not have been possible without weapons donated by the U.S. and other Western nations.
HANNA MALYAR: (Through interpreter) Our Ukrainian success depends on two points - our strength and our willing to fight - ability to fight - and weapons which we receive from our partners.
BEAUBIEN: Despite the festive atmosphere in the center of Kherson over the last few days, many residents say the last eight months in the city were also scary. The occupying Russian forces cut off cell phone service and internet communication to Ukraine. Moscow tried to introduce the ruble as the local currency, although that didn't appear to have been successful. Several people we talked to yesterday teared up as they talked about living in the fear that they or their loved ones might disappear into Russian detention. Part of the joy in the city now is that that fear has been lifted.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kherson, Ukraine.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Ukrainian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.