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In a Ukrainian border town, the local newspaper keeps watch on returning POWs

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Ukrainians freed from Russian captivity usually enter home through a checkpoint in northeastern Ukraine. They're always welcomed by villagers from a border town with a scrappy local newspaper. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from a village in the northeastern region of Sumy.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In the village of Krasnopillia, the main road from the Russian border passes right outside the weekly newspaper, Peremoha, which means Victory in Ukrainian. Only four people work at the newspaper, so the whole operation fits into a small pink house. A dog named Drone plays in the backyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

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

KAKISSIS: Peremoha's editor is Oleksandr Motsny. Before the war, he says his team covered hyper-local issues - small businesses, farmers, milestone birthdays.

OLEKSANDR MOTSNY: (Through interpreter) Our newspaper's motto is, don't let ordinary people be erased from history. The national media don't come here, so it's our responsibility to document our own stories.

KAKISSIS: In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine the day before the newspaper was set to celebrate its 90th year of publication.

MOTSNY: (Through interpreter) I still have the calendar with a list of those invited to our celebration. I crossed out the list and wrote, war, in red marker over it.

KAKISSIS: Motsny and his two reporters are now war correspondents. He points to a chair where they keep body armor and helmets. Because their village is so close to the checkpoint, he says the newspaper tries to document every convoy bringing home Ukrainian soldiers. This includes those killed in action, whose remains had been held by Russians in exchange for the bodies of their troops.

MOTSNY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We do not want our fallen soldiers to be statistics," Motsny says. The newspaper also documents the release of the living, the prisoners of war.

MOTSNY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Motsny gets a list of their names from the Ukrainian government.

MOTSNY: (Through interpreter) The first thing I do is scour the list to find the names of people from our village. We have several people held by the Russians.

KAKISSIS: One is Vova Kucherenko, a 25-year-old Marine who has been in Russian captivity for more than two years.

MOTSNY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: His mother lives alone in the village. Motsny often drives past her house when he's out delivering the newspaper.

MOTSNY: (Non-English language spoken).

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

KAKISSIS: He hands a copy to Nadiia Naruzhna, a retired town clerk, and she asks him if any convoys are coming through today.

NADIIA NARUZHNA: (Through interpreter) When our soldiers are returned alive, we feel great joy and happiness here. When their bodies are returned, we all mourn. But either way, we go to meet them.

KAKISSIS: Later that day, he receives a text that a convoy is indeed on the way. It's carrying the bodies of soldiers. We arrive at the newspaper just as the convoy approaches.

Flashing lights from the police and there are several trucks.

Locals line the road outside. They bow their heads or kneel in silence as the vehicles go by. But when the soldiers come home alive, there's a celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

KAKISSIS: In this video from earlier this year, villagers weep with joy, thanking God as they run after the convoy, some carrying sweets.

NATALIYA KUCHERENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Whenever these convoys of POWs pass, Nataliya Kucherenko always stands along the road with a photo of a dark-haired young man.

KUCHERENKO: (Through interpreter) I will stand there for hours, even in the rain or snow. I stand there because I'm waiting for my son.

KAKISSIS: She is the mother of Vova Kucherenko, the 25-year-old Marine held by Russia. We meet her at her small, tidy house. She shows us her son's room, now filled with the posters and banners she waves at convoys.

KUCHERENKO: (Through interpreter) At the end of last year, I found video that said my son has been sentenced to life in a Russian prison. I don't know what state he's in. It has destroyed me. It's like I'm in captivity, too.

KAKISSIS: Russia and Ukraine haven't exchanged prisoners for months, but Russia is stepping up attacks on the border regions, including Krasnopilia. Back at the newspaper called Victory, editor Oleksandr Motsny says he and his team are covering those attacks.

MOTSNY: (Through interpreter) Whenever some place is hit, I go to the scene immediately. I help the wounded, clear the rubble and only after that, do I start reporting.

KAKISSIS: So what if it's not strictly journalism, he says. These are our neighbors, and we cannot survive without them.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Krasnopillia, 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.