KHERSON, Ukraine — Women hugged them, men shook their hands, and children looked on admiringly.
“We waited for you! We love you!” people in a crowd in Kherson’s central square yelled as a half-dozen Ukrainian soldiers arrived in a dusty pickup truck on Saturday, piling out to mingle with the crowd.
“Good job! Good job!” a woman yelled. “Come here, let me hug you.”
The soldiers sweeping into the strategic southern Ukrainian city received a hero’s welcome from a population that had lived through nearly nine months of Russian occupation.
But a day after Kyiv’s forces began reclaiming the city, the people gathering on the city’s streets told visiting New York Times journalists that their joy was mixed with a deep sense of unease about possible Russian retaliatory strikes, which had followed earlier Ukrainian successes in the war.
Svitlana Horbunova, a hairdresser, said she even worried that the celebration in the central square could be targeted.
“Everybody expects something,” Ms. Horbunova said. “Everybody is afraid.”
Col. Roman Kostenko, a member of Parliament serving in the Ukrainian military, said the risk of a retaliatory bombardment of Kherson was high.
Although Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Friday that all of its forces had withdrawn from the city, the Ukrainian military’s intelligence agency said on Saturday that there were still soldiers in fixed defensive positions, and that it was unclear whether they would fight, flee or surrender. The military reported some skirmishes with Russian forces on the outskirts of Kherson.
Despite the palpable trepidation about what would happen next — and amid hardships in a city mostly without heat, water and medicines — there was obvious pride in what Ukraine’s military had accomplished in forcing the Russian retreat. The victory, said Roman Lozinsky, a member of Parliament serving in the Ukrainian Navy, “shows the whole world that Ukraine can do it.”
The celebration in the city, he said, showed that Russian claims that Ukrainians in the south and the east of the country wanted to join Russia were false. “Even people who speak Russian came to the streets to greet Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
He told a woman who came to hug him, “Sorry it took so long.”
Under overcast skies occasionally broken by rays of sunlight, Ukraine’s army was taking up defensive positions along the west bank of the Dnipro River, across from where the Russian army was now arrayed. Units of Ukrainian scouts fanned out to search for Russian deserters or saboteurs left in the city.
The sounds of cheering and car horns in the center of the city mingled with occasional explosions from demining teams and incoming artillery on the city’s edges.
But as night fell and the city went dark, blacked out by electrical cables blown up during the fighting, the party in the square went on.
Ukrainian songs banned under the occupation blared from a speaker. People cheered and sang along, dancing in the light of headlamps and flashlights.
One cheeky tune praised the guided missile-firing Bayraktar drone. “You are on a foreign land, and we beat you,” the people sang, adding an expletive to refer to the Russians, and stomping on the brick sidewalks.
The military said that Ukrainian forces were clearing mines and explosives left behind by departing Russian forces, and searching for any Russian soldiers who might be hiding in abandoned homes.
But people in the square continued to wave Ukrainian flags and sing the country’s national anthem.
“It’s our city!” one woman shouted. “Ours! Ours! Ours! Our Ukraine!”