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Russian troops advance on towns in eastern Ukraine, where some residents remain

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian troops are advancing on towns in eastern Ukraine. A few residents remain in those towns despite years of war. NPR's Joanna Kakissis visited some of them.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Serhii Chaus wants to take us to a place that doesn't exist anymore, except in memory. Imagine, he says, a town surrounded by ponds and forests. Birds chirping, the scent of fresh earth and blossoms everywhere.

SERHII CHAUS: (Through interpreter) There was this pond called Goldfish, which had this incredibly beautiful oak grove. We gathered there with our families. Everyone had their favorite spot where they could sit for an hour and meditate in nature.

KAKISSIS: He's remembering his hometown of Chasiv Yar as it was. He spent nearly all of his 42 years there - almost his entire life. It started to change 10 years ago, when pro-Russia separatists took over part of the region that includes the town. Then came the full-scale invasion. Chaus was appointed something like a wartime mayor, and he often dresses from head to toe in Army green. His wife and children were moved to safety long ago, and he watched thousands of other residents flee, especially after the Russians occupied a nearby city. Now the front line is just a short drive away from Chasiv Yar and only a few hundred people remain

CHAUS: (Through interpreter) Most of them are elderly. They no longer cling to the future. They cling to the past. Some say their lives are over. I tell them there is still life ahead, and every day should be bright.

KAKISSIS: Chaus sleeps in a nearby city. Being there allows him to collect food, bottled water, firewood and blankets and deliver them to his constituents. They have no power or running water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE IDLING)

KAKISSIS: On a recent morning, we join him on one of his rounds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can I help?

KAKISSIS: We're stopping to pick up bread and trays of hot food when the air raid siren starts up again, and we all put on body armor. The mayor tells us to shut off our phones so Russian forces can't track the signal.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

KAKISSIS: We drive in silence with the windows down to better hear drones and artillery in case we need to take cover. As we near Chasiv Yar, we pass the forest the mayor remembered earlier where he used to meditate. The trees are now dead, the pond's and ashy grey. Instead of families having lakeside picnics, there are freshly dug trenches.

We're getting out here?

When we arrive in town, most of the buildings look empty and crushed. The mayor clenches his jaw and unloads his van.

Serhii, what are you going to do here today?

He says we're going to try to deliver this bread, this food, and then we'll see how things go.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KAKISSIS: The air smells burnt, heavy with propellant and spent munitions. Drones fly overhead. We hear explosions practically every minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get in.

KAKISSIS: OK.

Tetiana Procenko doesn't flinch. She's waiting for the mayor in the ruins of a mini market. Still intact above the doorway hangs a sign with drawings of chocolates, bread and sausage that you could once buy here.

Hello.

TETIANA PROCENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PROCENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Are they bringing you some bread?

PROCENKO: (Through interpreter) Yes. Yes. They took us some bread. Thank you, thank you.

KAKISSIS: Is that borscht?

PROCENKO: Borscht.

KAKISSIS: Borscht.

Procenko is a retired school guard. She will share the food the mayor has brought with their neighbors when it's safe.

Aren't you scared? Don't you want to leave?

"Where can I go, and how can I support myself?" Procenko says. "I left and came back because I don't have enough money," she says, "so here, we survive with bread and food that is brought to us."

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KAKISSIS: The mayor calls Chasiv Yar the shield town. He says it's taking so much fire to shield a bigger city, Kostyantynivka, which has a railway hub the Russians want.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILWAY CAR ROLLING)

KAKISSIS: This is it, 12 miles away. Late last month, Russian forces bombed the train station, now a pile of rubble. But the rail lines both sides need to supply troops are intact.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

KAKISSIS: The strike also damaged a church across the street. Workers are replacing the windows. A gray-haired man who identifies himself as Hennady is sweeping up broken glass and pieces of concrete. He doesn't want to give his last name because he fears for his safety. "Everyone here wants this war to stop," he says. "Everyone is tired." As we talk, a Russian jet flies overhead. Hennady keeps working even after it drops a bomb somewhere in the distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KAKISSIS: Oh, there's another one.

The townspeople here say the Russian occupation is like a cancer, slowly metastasizing towards them to kill their city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: Kostiantynivka’s utilities still provide power and water, but many residents need food and health supplies, so they gathered a local hub for humanitarian aid.

KRISTINA VASYLIUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Kristina Vasyliuk helps run it. She's originally from Bakhmut, a half-hour drive away in peace time and the site of the bloodiest battle of the war. The Russians took the city, now a wasteland. She fears the same end for Kostiantynivka.

VASYLIUK: (Through interpreter) I can say from experience that people will stay here until the last moment, until the situation is absolutely critical.

KAKISSIS: She survived the bombing of the city's main market last September. It killed 15 people and it changed her profoundly.

VASYLIUK: (Through interpreter) I constantly ask myself, should I stay or should I go? Every time I hear a bomb hit, I tell myself it won't hit me again. At least not today.

KAKISSIS: She hears and sees explosions every day from artillery, mortar rounds and bombs dropped from planes. The front line is moving closer.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

CHAUS: Back in Chasiv Yar, Mayor Serhii Chaus is trying to get to the other side of town, which is much closer to the fighting and much more dangerous. He wants to reach what's left of the utilities department. A woman in her 70s is taking refuge there, and she and a couple of locals are sweeping the streets. War or not, it's a matter of dignity. The mayor wants to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KAKISSIS: Another explosion. He says, "well, these are the conditions we work in, and today is not the loudest day." He thinks it over, then returns to his car and drives through what's left of his hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, reporting from Chasiv Yar and Kostyantynivka, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.