KHERSON, Ukraine -- "I can't stop staring at our boys here," said Valentyna Moroz, who lived through Russia's eight-month occupation of Kherson, standing in the sun on the central Freedom Square this week.
After Russian troops withdrew, Kherson's residents were deprived of water, electricity, and mobile-phone connections, but the atmosphere in the 18th-century port city -- the only regional capital the invading forces had captured since Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February -- was decidedly euphoric.
Moroz, a 67-year-old pensioner who has spent almost all her life in Kherson after leaving Crimea as a teenage orphan, was simultaneously crying and smiling widely. "These are tears of joy -- I got my home back," she said.
The city center, the site of dramatic acts of resistance in the early weeks of the invasion, was again full of people. During a prolonged period of widespread fear and grave danger, many had rarely left their homes, but now they were greeting each other enthusiastically, with cries of "Glory to Ukraine," "Glory to the heroes," and "Kherson is Ukraine."
"I was afraid to leave my house, and now I am standing here surrounded by friends," Moroz said on November 14. Her daughter left Kherson for Odesa with her husband and their child at the beginning of the occupation, and her belongings were stolen by Russian soldiers, she said.
As she spoke, large groups of people flocked around the places where mobile connection had been reestablished to contact their loved ones.
"We are so relieved. We still can't believe it really happened," said Kateryna Hrabovetska, an 18-year-old student who came to Freedom Square with her friend Sofia Chastilo, 17.
"Since liberation, I wake up every day with a smile on my face," Chastilo said.
"The Russians granted me a nightmarish gap year, but it's all over now and I'm looking ahead to the future," she said, explaining that she had been unable to enroll in university because of the war.
Ukrainian soldiers who entered the city over the weekend as the Russians withdrew were celebrated as heroes. Residents ran up to hug them, kiss them, and ask for autographs. The men and women in military uniforms obliged, signing people's clothes and the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags they brought with them.
Kherson's liberation came as a surprise to many residents. In fact, it was an outcome of months of fierce, deadly fighting that wreaked destruction on numerous towns and villages, and the culmination of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has driven Russian forces back to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River.
It's part of a war whose end seems distant nearly nine months after the invasion -- a dramatic escalation eight years after Russia seized Crimea to the south and fomented armed conflict in the Donbas, east and north of Kherson.
In Photos: Days after their liberation by Ukrainian forces, residents of the southern port city of Kherson are facing shortages of water and electricity as authorities step up efforts to deliver humanitarian aid.
"The most important thing now is not to lose touch with reality," said Serhiy, a 32-year-old soldier nicknamed "the Balkan." He described the previous months of fighting alongside his comrades, many of whom came from Kherson, as a bloody and exhausting but insistent march forward.
"The Russians retreated because they are weaker than we are. We will push ahead until we get to our 1991 borders -- there is no alternative," he said, referring to the frontiers that were set and universally recognized, including by Russia, when the Soviet Union fell apart.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise visit to Kherson on November 14, hailing soldiers as heroes and thanking those who helped Ukraine retake Kherson for their service. The crowd sand the national anthem as the national flag was hoisted atop the city council building.
"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 are really returning, really raising our flag," Zelenskiy said at a press conference. He also joked that he came to the city to eat watermelon -- a fruit Kherson is known for that has become a symbol of its resistance.
As Zelenskiy answered questions from journalists, people in the crowd were shouting "Armed forces of Ukraine" and "Zelenskiy, well done!"
"We're going to smash them all," one man said, raising his fist in the air.
The cheerful, confident atmosphere filled the city center all day, but a walk down to the embankment of the Dnieper revealed a more ambivalent picture of a city that suffered from months of occupation and prepares for the uncertain future.
Russian troops were just across the river, where people came to get water for their homes. The loud bangs of artillery fire were heard every few minutes. Many infrastructure facilities were still mined, and there were rumors that Russian soldiers remained in hiding in and around the city.
Anatoliy Kovalyov, an old man who stopped by the Kherson State Maritime Academy, where Russian flags and symbols remained on the walls, noted the retreating Russians had removed monuments of Grigory Potemkin, Aleksandr Suvorov, and Fyodor Ushakov -- 18th-century military leaders who symbolize Russia's role in the city's history.
"We don't need them here, but they say they will bring them back," Kovalyov said.
Back on Freedom Square, as she tried to contact her family in Odesa for the first time in weeks, Moroz said she believed there were a lot of collaborators remaining in Kherson, even though most of them left before the Ukrainian Army entered the city.
"Now they are afraid to leave their homes," she said.
Meanwhile, activists and Ukrainian authorities said evidence of widespread atrocities has emerged in the Kherson region, where international investigators are now gathering information as they have done in northern and eastern Ukraine following Russian retreats.
Amid the jubilation, "the first horror stories are beginning to surface about the crimes the occupiers committed and the suffering local people endured. Given what was uncovered after the liberation of other parts of Ukraine -- the atrocities in Bucha, Chernihiv, and Izyum, for example -- we should brace ourselves for worse," Human Rights Watch said on November 15.
"With Kherson, we don't even have to wait, in fact," it said. "We already know some of the crimes Russian forces committed in the southern city when they controlled it."