ODESA, Ukraine — The Ukrainian city of Kherson is rapidly coming back to life after more than 8 1/2 months under Russian occupation.

Despite still being without water or electricity, residents are returning to the streets for joyous celebrations. Work crews are hastily setting up cellphone, Wi-Fi and electrical connections. Demining teams are attempting to clear areas around critical infrastructure including the main roads, rail lines and power plants.

Liberty Square in the center of Kherson has turned into a makeshift carnival and humanitarian aid distribution hub. People draped in Ukrainian flags sing patriotic songs. Ukrainian soldiers are feted as heroes: Residents hug them, young boys beg for autographs and military patches. Kids race around a monument wrapped in new yellow-and-blue bunting.

"On the first day, when everyone knew [the Russian occupation] was over, everyone kissed and hugged," says Mariya Kryvoruchko. "We are so happy!"

But despite the current joy, residents describe a terrifying occupation in which speaking Ukrainian could get you detained and people disappeared without a trace.

"Honestly I was afraid," Kryvoruchko says. "At different moments I believed we would be liberated. Other times I didn't believe."

Every night she heard screams from prisoners being held at the local police station less than a block from her house, she says.

"Deep in my soul, I'm still afraid. I don't believe Putin and I'm afraid of him."

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