(CNN) — The ghostly emptiness of the streets of Lyman in eastern Ukraine contrasts with the strategic importance of this city.
There is no sign of Russian troops on Sunday: few Russian tanks damaged, Russian dead or Russian prisoners. Members of the Ukrainian National Guard from the Dnipro-1 unit loiter in small numbers on some streets.
The occasional rattle of gunfire, or the dull thud of artillery, breaks the silence. Some locals emerge, riding their bikes, looking for food, bewildered by what is happening.
“One day I wear a cap, another day a different cap,” one woman said through tears, pretending to remove a hat.
“How can we live like this?” he said, referring to the change in control of the town.
CNN was one of the first news outlets in the recently liberated city, arriving 30 minutes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared the city completely free of Russian troops.
Ukrainian officials and troops had repeatedly spoken of a large number of Moscow’s best units being trapped there. However, few signs of encirclement were visible on Sunday.
Some officials said the Russian bodies and prisoners had already been removed. But locals offered another explanation: that Russian forces had left the city in an orderly manner on Friday.
“They got in their tanks and left,” Tanya said, cycling back to the bomb shelter, where she still spends the nights with 15 other people.
A Ukrainian military spokesman, who was asked to respond to CNN reports, denied that Russia had withdrawn two days ago and said there was fighting in the area as recently as Saturday.
Sergiy Cherevatiy, from the Eastern Group of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said that Russian troops had formed convoys to break the de facto siege of the city. Some made it out, he said, while others were hit.
The possibility that Russian forces may have carried out, even in part, an orderly withdrawal on Friday poses an important question of time for the Kremlin. During that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin was signing documents falsely claiming to annex Lyman and other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, and held a rally in Moscow’s Red Square claiming victory would be Russia’s.
It now appears that at the same time his army was withdrawing from Lyman, in one of the most significant Russian defeats in weeks, a withdrawal that may have a knock-on effect for Russian control of occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The return to Ukrainian control in Lyman was swift, and a local has already painted the Ukrainian gold and blue colors on the door of the local police station. Inside the building, the damage had already been swept away and the rooms tidied up.
In the local administration building, Roman sat at a table near a United Russia party flag. “Bad,” he said, describing the months of Russian control. “No electricity or water.” He added that the administration building was used to manage and corral locals into participating in the recent referendum, which in Lyman must have occurred under full bombardment from the advancing Ukraine.
Lyman’s important rail infrastructure was severely damaged, with roofs blown off the station building and rolling stock on the railroad tracks damaged. Multiple buildings in the city have been severely destroyed, however on Sunday the streets appeared to have been swept away in some areas.
Many of the Ukrainian troops had already moved on to the next target in the rapidly reeling Russian defense lines: Kremmina, further east.