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Residents of Ukrainian cities describe life under bombardment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been one week since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and in that time, the U.N. estimates that more than a million people have fled across the country's borders. Russian and Ukrainian officials met for a second round of talks today. They agreed to establish humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians, but there was no agreement to end the fighting. At a news conference, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, directly for a face-to-face meeting. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us from Ukraine. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the latest on the ground there?

FRAYER: Well, the Russian convoy is still bogged down on its way to the capital, Kyiv. But Russian troops appear to be advancing more quickly in the country's south, particularly in some strategic port cities there. A battle is also happening very close - too close for comfort - to Ukraine's biggest nuclear power plant in the southeast. The U.N. says it's very concerned about that.

SHAPIRO: And what are Ukrainians who you are talking to telling you they're feeling about living through all this?

FRAYER: Millions and millions of people are hearing air raid sirens daily. They're running down into their basements, and they're sitting in those bomb shelters and experiencing this war through social media, too. There's so many videos being posted of really ghastly scenes of apartment buildings in ashes, people with bloodied faces. And this is all part of how Ukrainians are trying to understand what's happening to their country. But it's also traumatizing and retraumatizing as they scroll through these videos. I've been talking to people in areas where Russian attacks have been taking a particularly heavy toll. Take a listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

FRAYER: I reached Yevhenia Revenko in Kherson, a major city in the south which both Russia and Ukraine claim to control.

YEVHENIA REVENKO: Hi, Lauren. I can't say that I'm fine, but I'm alive, so I'm fine.

FRAYER: Russian troops are occupying the main government building. And Revenko, a 25-year-old Ph.D. student, woke up to huge explosions this morning.

REVENKO: So when the shaking was stopped, I don't know if it's me who is shaking or it's the house who is shaking.

FRAYER: As we speak, Revenko is walking down her street and looking directly at Russian tanks just 20 yards away. But she has to go out. She's run out of food.

REVENKO: Right now I'm looking for at least one open shop for buying some food.

FRAYER: When she's not searching for supplies, Revenko has been toggling between episodes of her favorite show, "Euphoria," and a webcam with a grainy video of Kherson's city hall and the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag still flying out front as of nightfall.

REVENKO: And we checked it each day. And each night before going to sleep, we are looking if the flag is still ours.

FRAYER: Meanwhile, the city of Mariupol is under siege.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VADYM BOYCHENKO: (Speaking non-English language).

FRAYER: In a video posted to social media, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko says Russian forces have smashed trains, destroyed bridges and are blocking supplies. He compares it to the siege of Leningrad during World War II. In Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, there are bombed-out apartment buildings, whole city blocks charred. A Russian strike hit in front of the city's administrative building in Freedom Square.

KSENIYA KOVALEVA: Yeah, my office is right near that building.

FRAYER: Kseniya Kovaleva runs an IT company there or ran one before her office was destroyed. She lives alone nearby. Her parents are across town, and they're all scared.

KOVALEVA: They're calling me from time to time to say their last words. So I already received three letters from my mom.

FRAYER: And then she interrupts herself.

KOVALEVA: I think you will hear the bomb now. Oh, no. This is the aircraft with bombs flying. I don't know if you can hear it or not.

FRAYER: I could. And so I told her to run back down to the underground garage where she's been spending most nights with her neighbors.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Ukraine, bringing us stories of people who are struggling to survive. Lauren is still on the line with us. And, Lauren, what are these folks you're talking to telling you about how they view their government at this critical moment?

FRAYER: Yeah. So Ukrainians have always been outnumbered militarily against Russia. But they've long thought that it's their unity, their determination that might give them an upper hand in this conflict. And that's more of what I heard today. Some people thought that if Russia invaded, it would be a quick defeat. And they've been impressed that their country has mounted such a fight. Of course, they hope it's over soon.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer reporting from Ukraine. Thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.