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What it's like living in Ukraine's warzone

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv Saturday, reassuring him that the U.S. will back Ukraine until the war is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: Your fight is a fight for everyone. And so our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done.

RASCOE: Meanwhile, the U.N. has begun evacuating civilians from a steel plant in the southeastern city of Mariupol. Hundreds of Ukrainians have been holed up in the plant's bunkers for weeks as Russia has bombed the area relentlessly. Still, Ukraine's army has managed to slow Russia's invasion to a crawl in the region. Both sides are trading artillery fire as ground troops fight fierce battles over small towns and villages. NPR's Brian Mann reports from southern Ukraine, where many civilians are living in the crossfire.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: We leave Mykolaiv mid-morning. It's the last fortified city along the Black Sea fully controlled by Ukraine. Beyond, it's contested ground. We reach a village called Lymani, where two elderly women, Olga and Helena, are sitting on a bench. They're enjoying the spring sunshine, sharing a jar of pickles. I ask why they're still here.

OLGA: (Non-English language spoken).

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

HELENA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Helena says, "Look, we're old. We don't want to leave our home and our village." But as we speak, there's a rumble of artillery fire close by.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY BLASTING)

OLGA: (Non-English language spoken).

HELENA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: The women grin and say, that's our Ukrainian army saying hello to the other side. And they're right. That's the sound of Ukrainian artillery blasting at Russian positions a few miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY BLASTING)

MANN: Olga and Helena both say they're fiercely loyal to the Ukrainian side.

HELENA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "The Russians are on our land. We didn't invite them here," Helena says. But the women also admit feeling frightened and lonely.

OLGA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Olga says she lives alone in a war zone. Her family all passed away long ago.

We leave the women with their jar of pickles and travel with a Ukrainian military escort to a village even closer to the Russian lines called Shevchenkovo. Alexy, the Ukrainian soldier who's guiding us, leads the way inside a bomb-shattered elementary school that's been abandoned since the Russians pushed into this area.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CRUNCHING)

MANN: There's broken glass and rubble everywhere.

ALEXY: Every day, this village, our neighbors, are under shelling - every day. Nobody know why - nobody know.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKETS EXPLODING)

MANN: We run for the cellar as rockets explode in the schoolyard. It's terrifying, but no one is injured.

So far, Ukraine's army has managed to fight Russia to a standstill. But as we huddle in the dark basement, Alexy says the Russians have turned this part of his country into a killing zone.

ALEXY: It's very dangerous to stay here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MANN: But people do stay here. We also visit Kotliareve, a village 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 to a neighbor's destroyed house. The man who lived there, she says, was killed in one of the missile strikes.

SVETLANA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "Of course I knew him," she says. "It's a small village. Everyone knows everyone." Then she says, it's all frightening.

SVETLANA: (Non-English language spoken).

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

LEONID: After two months, it's normal situation.

MANN: That's Leonid, who runs a shop in Kotliarev. Like Olga and Helena and Svetlana, he says it already feels like this war has been going on forever, like this is the new normal. I ask Leonid if he thinks peace will return to his village anytime soon.

LEONID: I hope. I hope.

MANN: Yeah.

LEONID: We can just hope.

MANN: Good luck. I hope you stay safe.

But, of course, that's a foolish thing for me to say. The violence brought by the Russians may feel like a terrible new kind of normal, but until the fighting here ends, these villagers will never be safe.

Brian Mann, NPR News, southern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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