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Ukraine's army is waging its 1st major offensive against Russia to retake Kherson

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukraine's army is waging its first major offensive against the Russians. It's pushing to retake a strategic city in the south called Kherson. The fighting is brutal, and Ukrainian soldiers are paying a terrible price to liberate a vast region of occupied territory near the Black Sea. NPR's Brian Mann traveled close to the frontlines to talk with those soldiers. And just a word of caution - his story contains moments of violence that may be disturbing for some listeners.

(CROSSTALK)

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Midmorning, we drive past bunkers and sandbag walls on the outskirts of Apostolove, a half-empty industrial town northeast of Kherson.

We're out on what's really the military frontier now. There are villages still around. You see civilians, but there are also checkpoints everywhere and fortified positions.

Our goal here is to see and hear what it's like day to day for thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, many of them civilians just a few months ago, who live and fight on this southern front. The first stop is a place hidden on the edge of an abandoned factory where Ukrainian soldiers are brought when they're injured. A burly guy with a black beard who calls himself Doc waits in the back of a big army ambulance.

DOC: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He grins and says, "there are no patients here now." But he thumps the medical equipment strapped to his body armor and says he's ready.

DOC: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He says, "when wounded soldiers arrive, they're often in a very bad state, often hit by Russian artillery." He has to work fast to stabilize the men before transporting them onto a military hospital. As the offensive continues toward Kherson, Doc says things will only get worse with more casualties. The day after our trip, the Ukrainian military told NPR 26 wounded soldiers were brought here for care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRING)

MANN: The soldiers tell us that is the sound of Russian tanks firing in the distance. For weeks, elements of Ukraine's army have been pushing forward along a vast arc of territory toward Kherson. U.S. and British intelligence reports say it's working. Russia is back on its heels here under enormous pressure. But progress has been grudging and costly, and both sides have scored hits.

OLEKSANDR LYTVYNOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: That's a Ukrainian army major named Oleksandr Lytvynov. He's a guy with a kind face in his 50s who worked as a chauffeur before the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MANN: He's taken us forward a few kilometers closer to the act of fighting to an observation post and bunker next to a small orchard where he was stationed. Lytvynov says he's volunteered to show us this place because it's important people know what he and his fellow soldiers are facing.

LYTVYNOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Lytvynov says he was here when Russians hit them repeatedly with bunker-buster artillery shells and then a missile. "It was deafening," he says. He shows us a crater a dozen yards across, then shrugs and says they were lucky. The Russian aim was just a little off.

LYTVYNOV: Next location.

MANN: We climb next into a pair of battered SUVs driven by Ukrainian soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

MANN: Ukraine's army has stipulated NPR can only go forward from this point to talk to soldiers if we ride in their convoy. So Major Lytvynov drives. He points to farm fields where the bronze-yellow wheat will go unharvested. He says, "it's too dangerous. All the farmers have fled."

We're moving quickly now because we are in the open here, and a lot of the Russian artillery does have the capacity and the range to hit here. So what he did say is that they have not seen spotter drones today.

The landscape looks eerily empty, scarred by craters and shell-damaged buildings. Lytvynov tells us it's easy to get lost out here on winding farm roads among scattered villages and industrial sites. The exact point of contact between Russian and Ukrainian troops is often unclear day by day.

So as we're climbing out of the vehicles here, I can hear the tank fire again in the distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Hello. Brian.

Two Ukrainian soldiers appear from the other car and identify themselves as Victor and Serhiy. They carry assault rifles with extra magazines strapped to their armor. One wears a camouflage bandana over his shaved head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MANN: They lead us into a strip of thick forest to the trench they occupied for months.

VICTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: They say they were down in this hole getting hammered by Russian tanks and mortars, sometimes for a month at a time, often with no way to fight back.

SERHIY: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: They tell me it was frightening to be under fire, but they say the experience differs soldier to soldier. "Sometimes," they say, "the fear just disappears. Other soldiers are always scared. It never goes away."

I climb down through the narrow hole. The trench doesn't feel safe. It smells of raw dirt. The cut logs used to build a sheltering roof are low, claustrophobic. This trench isn't being used right now, but there are still bottles of water, ammunition caches and other supplies. Victor and Serhiy tell me the frontline has moved forward from here. They offer to take us closer to active fighting, but we declined for safety reasons. I ask if they'll use this trench again if the Russians push back.

VICTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "Maybe," they say. But they're convinced that won't happen. They think they have the Russians on the run as Ukraine's army pushes toward Kherson. But then something happens that shows how uncertain, how dangerous things are here.

VICTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Victor and Serhiy say they've detected a Russian reconnaissance drone operating overhead. I don't see it or hear it, but they say it's hovering above the tree canopy. If it spotted us, we could be threatened by artillery or snipers. After a few minutes' wait, we leave the forest quickly, scrambling back to the vehicle.

You're in front.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS OPENING)

MANN: The soldiers are clearly concerned. Major Lytvynov, our guide and driver, grips the steering wheel, going much faster over the rutted tractor road, trying to get us out of there. Then, suddenly, he loses control.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICROPHONE STATIC)

MANN: My audio recorder catches the moment, the sound of the car hitting a tree. My leg is broken. My security adviser is also injured. And our driver, Major Oleksandr Lytvynov, is killed in the crash.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: We're evacuated swiftly by Ukrainian medics and soldiers, including Doc, the field medic we met earlier in the day. They care for us and take us to a military hospital a safe distance from the line.

Later, the Ukrainian military will tell us they believe their two vehicles were actually under fire by the Russians. We didn't hear or see that. What we did see is how dangerous that world is - how quickly a stretch of forest or a farm field or a village street can turn deadly. We also see the terrible price Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers like Oleksandr Lytvynov, are paying day after day as they struggle to push the Russian army back from their country. Brian Mann, NPR News, near Kherson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.