As Ukraine reclaims southeastern villages, the painful stories of a Russian occupation are revealed
Ukrainian officials say they've recaptured 500 square kilometres in Kherson, dozens of villages
In the northern Kherson region, the signs of an eight-month-long battle are visible from the rutted rural roads that run through the farm fields and stands of trees that still conceal some Ukrainian military positions.
Several casings from cluster munitions are wedged into wide swaths of empty fields that look otherwise barren.
Abandoned military vehicles sit on the side of roads.
In the village of Khreshchenivka, Russian soldiers dug a trench next to a Second World War Soviet cemetery and a statue of the unknown soldier.
Littered on the ground now is garbage and bullet casings.
Picking up the pieces
The Kherson region was one of Russia's earliest targets in the conflict and one of four regions that President Vladimir Putin announced Russia was annexing on Oct. 1. But since that proclamation, Ukrainian officials say their country's military has retaken 500 square kilometres and dozens of villages and settlements, all of which Russia considers its own.
"I have a good feeling, like after a good house cleaning," said a Ukrainian soldier, who asked to be identified only as Andrew.
He previously worked as a biology teacher and spoke as he and a fellow soldier cleaned their rusting pistols. The sound of artillery boomed in the distance.
Andrew had just moved to a new position near a liberated village after the Russian military was recently pushed back dozens of kilometres south and southeast, toward the Dnipro River.
"I am surprised. I thought [the Russians] should be more stubborn, more tough, with higher morale," he said.
"Why are they retreating so fast and unorganized?"
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The faces of liberation
A CBC News crew was granted permission to visit a handful of villages just three days after Ukraine announced they had been liberated from Russian occupation.
The Ukrainian military and national guard are working to clear the area of mines and get hardware off the roads, while some residents are getting a welcome reprieve from months of fear and tension.
Oksana Kravchuk wept as she described the intense fighting, including battles just this month.
The 48-year-old gathered with her neighbours to huddle in the cellar when Ukrainian forces arrived to try and take back the village of Ukrainka.
"Our house was hit. Our window was blown out," Kravchuk said. "But we were happy to see them."
She and her neighbours took out a guitar to sing a song to praise God, but she is still anxious about her husband, who is away working with the military.
She lives in a poor, rural village in northern Kherson, where chickens roam in simple yards.
A strategic position
The region, which is Ukraine's largest vegetable and gourd producer, is strategically important to Russia because it lies just north of the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Russian officials say thousands of troops are regrouping further to the south in Kherson and that the Ukrainian advance has stopped.
Throughout the war, as Ukrainian forces have retaken villages, horrific stories have emerged of finding mass graves and learning of rape and torture at the hands of Russian soldiers.
Kherson residents are beginning to disclose what they experienced.
Viktor Kopytok, 37, led CBC down a damp outdoor cellar where he said Russian soldiers locked him up every night for three weeks after accusing him of collaborating with the Ukrainian military.
"I can't describe what I have been through, " he said.
"Maybe there were normal people amongst them, but there were also those sadists, simply sadists."
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Kopytok is the head of the Khreshchenivka, a rural farming community located about 140 kilometres northeast of Kherson.
After Russia's military overtook this area on March 8, Kopytok said he worked to deliver food and medicine to residents who didn't want to, or couldn't, leave their homes.
While it is impossible for CBC to verify this account, Kopytok then said that while driving through a Russian checkpoint at the end of March, a Russian soldier asked him why he was carrying a hat belonging to the Ukrainian army.
Kopytok accused him of planting the hat there, telling CBC that Russian troops had already voiced suspicion about him and his wife.
They discovered he had helped make Molotov cocktails and camouflage nets at the village council office during the early days of the war, he said.
And then soldiers accused his wife of displaying Ukrainian symbols because she had used yellow tape to cover the windows in her home to help prevent them from shattering into small shards from nearby shelling.
Kopytok said after he was interrogated by Russian soldiers at the checkpoint, they beat him and locked him away in his own cellar.
"The most horrible uncertainty was whether they would open the door or not," he said.
At times they prodded his ankle with a hot fire poker, he said. During the day he was allowed to go outside but had to stay in his yard.
'I hate them'
This went on for three weeks, but then the Russian soldiers moved on and were replaced with militia from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Eastern Ukraine.
He said they took little notice of him, so he was able to flee the community in a humanitarian convoy.
As he was back in Khreshchenivka on Thursday, he said it was ironic that Russians had accused him of being a nationalist.
"I was never one, but they've actually made me one now," he said. "With every cell of my body, I hate them."
With files from Corinne Seminoff and Kateryna Malofieieva