What it’s like to live in Ukraine’s war zone: NPR

Ukraine’s military is holding off Russia’s invasion at a snail’s pace, but heavy fighting is still going on in the south. For those who live there, the war has begun to feel like a kind of deadly normality.



AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in kyiv on Saturday, assuring him that the United States will stand behind Ukraine until the war ends.

(ARCHIVED RECORDING SOUNDBITE)

NANCY PELOSI: Your fight is everyone’s fight. Therefore, our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is over.

RASCOE: Meanwhile, the UN has begun evacuating civilians from a steel plant in the southeastern city of Mariupol. Hundreds of Ukrainians have been hiding in the plant’s bunkers for weeks as Russia has bombed the area relentlessly. Still, Ukraine’s military has managed to slow down Russia’s crawling invasion of the region. Both sides exchange artillery fire as ground troops fight fierce battles for small towns and villages. NPR’s Brian Mann reports from southern Ukraine, where many civilians live in the crossfire.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: We left Mykolaiv mid-morning. It is the last fortified city along the Black Sea fully controlled by Ukraine. Beyond that, it is contested terrain. We arrive at a town called Lymani, where two old women, Olga and Helena, are sitting on a bench. They are enjoying the spring sun, sharing a jar of pickles. I wonder why they are still here.

OLGA: (Language not English spoken).

MANN: “What should we do? Where should we go?” Olga says.

HELENA: (Language not English spoken).

MANN: Helena says, “Look, we’re old. We don’t want to leave our home and our town.” But as we speak, there is a crack of artillery fire nearby.

(SYNCHRONOUS SOUND OF ARTILLERY EXPLOSION)

OLGA: (Language not English spoken).

HELENA: (Language not English spoken).

MANN: The women smile and say, that’s our Ukrainian army waving to the other side. And they are right. That is the sound of Ukrainian artillery firing at Russian positions a few miles away.

(SYNCHRONOUS SOUND OF ARTILLERY EXPLOSION)

MANN: Olga and Helena say that they are fiercely loyal to the Ukrainian side.

HELENA: (Language not English spoken).

MANN: “The Russians are on our land. We don’t invite them here,” says Helena. But women also admit to feeling scared and lonely.

OLGA: (Language not English spoken).

MANN: Olga says she lives alone in a war zone. All of her family passed away a long time ago.

We left the women with their jar of pickles and traveled with a Ukrainian military escort to a town even closer to the Russian lines called Shevchenkovo. Alexy, the Ukrainian soldier who guides us, leads the way into a bombed-out elementary school that has been abandoned since the Russians invaded this area.

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MANN: There’s broken glass and debris everywhere.

ALEXY: Every day, this town, our neighbors, are under bombardment, every day. Nobody knows why, nobody knows.

MANN: It’s one thing to hear people talk about living under this kind of constant threat. Another thing is to experience it. The Russians attack, firing an artillery barrage at the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET EXPLOITATION)

MANN: We run to the basement as rockets explode in the schoolyard. It’s scary, but no one is hurt.

So far, the Ukrainian army has managed to stop the fight against Russia. But as we huddle in the dark basement, Alexy says that the Russians have turned this part of their country into a kill zone.

ALEXY: It’s very dangerous to stay here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Language other than English is spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MANN: But people stay here. We also visit Kotliareve, a town where Alexy shows us house after house damaged by Russian missiles.

ALEXY: One here, one there and one there.

MANN: A woman named Svetlana points out a neighbor’s destroyed house. The man who lived there, she says, was killed in one of the missile attacks.

SVETLANA: (language not English spoken).

MANN: “Of course I knew him,” she says. “It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody.” She then she says, everything is scary.

SVETLANA: (language not English spoken).

MANN: But one thing that’s troubling here is a phrase I hear villagers say over and over again.

LEONID: After two months, it’s a normal situation.

MANN: That’s Leonid, who has a store in Kotliarev. Like Olga, Helena and Svetlana, he says that he already feels as if this war has gone on forever, as if this is the new normal. I ask Leonid if he thinks that peace will soon return to his village.

LEONIDO: I hope. I hope.

MAN: Yes.

LEONID: We can only hope.

MAN: Good luck. I hope you stay safe.

But of course, that’s nonsense of me. The violence provoked by the Russians may feel like a terrible new normal, but until the fighting here ends, these villagers will never be safe.

Brian Mann, NPR News, South Ukraine.

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