Once the scene of Russian occupation, the road into the newly liberated city of Kherson is eerily quiet.
For much of the journey through small towns and settlements, our team of CNN reporters was forced to traverse side roads and fields; bridges over canals were blown up, roads were riddled with bomb craters, and anti-tank mines littered the place.
The trenches and checkpoints stood empty and were quickly abandoned by the Russians, who announced on Friday that they had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnieper in the strategic southern town of Kherson, leaving the regional capital of the same name and surrounding areas to Ukrainians.
The outskirts of the city, which has been occupied by Russian troops since March 3, were deserted and devoid of any military presence except for a Ukrainian checkpoint about five miles outside the city center, where six soldiers brandished CNN’s work personnel.
The streets of Kherson, once the scene of massive protests against Russia’s plans to transform the region into a breakaway pro-Russian republic, are now filled with beaming residents, draped in Ukrainian flags or painted faces, singing and dancing.
The military presence is still limited, but the street crowd erupts in loud cheers every time a truck full of soldiers rolls by, with jubilant passers-by offering soup, bread, flowers, hugs and kisses to the Ukrainian soldiers.
Everyone we interviewed had an experience that horrified them after living under Russian occupation. Earlier today, a teenager told CNN he was taken and beaten by Russian soldiers who thought he was a spy. Residents told us they were exhausted and overwhelmed by what this newfound freedom meant.
With the Russian troops out, everyone wants you to know what they’ve been through, how happy they are, and how grateful they are to the country that helped them.
But Ukrainians have no illusions that Kherson’s freedom means an end to their country’s misery or the hardships winter will bring.
Everyone we talked to knew that tougher days were ahead, where the Russians across the river could shell them. It was also unclear whether all Russian troops had left Kherson and the wider region. Behind this euphoria, there is still uncertainty.
But at least today, they’re celebrating.
Check out Robertson’s reporting from Ukraine here: