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Ukrainian soldiers who helped liberate Kherson describe relief, joy and apprehension

Col. Roman Kostenko strode down the dirt and gravel road of his home village in Ukraine's Kherson region carrying his country's flag in hand.

An elderly neighbor greeted him with a bouquet of blue and yellow flowers, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and wept, according to a video Kostenko provided NPR.

"It was scary," the woman tells Kostenko, referring to the occupation of the village by Russian troops. "We've been waiting for almost 9 months now."

"We've missed you so much," said a villager in a black watch cap addressing the colonel and the soldiers accompanying him: Kostenko's brother, Andriy, and their cousin, Denys.

"Glory to the heroes," said another.

Kostenko then walked into the courtyard of the one-story house where he had grown up and where Russian troops had lived since March. He passed a vulgar sign they had left painted on a wall and then stepped inside.

"The windows were broken," Kostenko recalled in a text message with NPR. "Almost all the furniture and things were stolen," including his body armor and medals. All that remained was a bed, some old wardrobes and a grenade the Russians had left behind.

"I'm very proud to return to my home," said Kostenko, with the flag he had carried in now flying from a trellis in his yard. "I cried."

It was a cathartic return for Kostenko and many other soldiers from Kherson who had spent months trying to liberate their homes. The Russian retreat last week was also a major blow to Moscow's war effort. Kherson city was the only regional capital to fall to the Russians, who saw it as a stepping stone in their long-shot strategy to take over Ukraine's Black Sea coast.

Ukraine took Kherson by targeting Russian supply lines

Ukrainian soldiers said they forced the Russians out of this part of the Kherson region by cutting off their ammunition and food and backing their forces up against the Dnieper River.

"We pretty much denied those troops their supply chains," says Stanislav Volovyk, a Ukrainian drone operator who helps guide the fire of howitzers. "We blew up the bridges. We got their supply routes under fire control with HIMARS and artillery."

HIMARS — or High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems — are high-precision, American-made rockets with a range of about 50 miles. Volovyk says that without access to their supplies, the Russians had little choice but to withdraw to the other side of the river.

"Otherwise it was just going to be a matter of time before we pretty much killed them all," he said.

Various factors led to Ukraine's routing of the Russians in this part of Kherson, but soldiers say the HIMARS had a big impact because they provided a range and level of accuracy the Ukrainians had never had before.

A reconnaissance soldier from Kherson who goes by the battle nickname Fox said he helped target a HIMAR that flew 24 miles before killing 20 Russian soldiers hiding in a bunker — a direct hit.

"At the moment, in this place, HIMARS are the best weapon," he said.

Euphoria and joy — but a tough, dangerous road ahead

Before the war, Fox worked as a seaman on a cargo ship out of the port of Kherson. He fled on the first day of the war, then joined the army and became part of a reconnaissance team. Last weekend, he returned to his neighborhood to a hero's welcome. His neighbors had no idea he'd become a soldier.

"They were completely surprised," said Fox, who arrived in full battle gear. "I didn't tell them I had joined the army because it could've caused them problems as they were in Russian-occupied territory."

Fox, who has been shuttling food into Kherson city over the weekend, said his homecoming filled him with joy: "I don't remember such a happy moment, such a light moment, in my life as today."

Fox said the people of Kherson were so euphoric, they seemed, for the moment, to forget the difficulties that still lie ahead.

"They think Kherson has come back home to Ukraine, that the war is finished, that there is no more fighting," said Fox, "but it's wrong."

Fox pointed out that before they left, the Russians sabotaged the city's water, electrical and mobile communications systems — the latter is in the process of being restored, according to the local military administration.

And although the Russians retreated across the Dnieper River to avoid annihilation, they could dig in and continue the fight within easy artillery range of the city.

Producer Valeria Fokina contributed to this story from Kyiv. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.