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A bridge separates 2 realities at the frontier of Russian-occupied Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Kyiv, Ukraine, where we keep hearing this number - 100,000; as in 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border at least, and more are still coming. The bulk of those troops are to the east, the far east of Ukraine, hard up against the Russian border, which is also where we're headed. To get there, we summon a taxi, glide through dark streets to Kyiv Central Station and hop a train.

We are going to a part of Ukraine where war is already underway - has been for years. Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine's forces in the eastern region of Donbas since 2014. So we decided to go see it, and we are taking time on the show today to bring you with us on the journey, to meet and hear the stories of ordinary people in Donbas whose lives have already been turned upside down by war with Russia and who now face the prospect of being caught in the middle of what the White House is warning could be the largest invasion since World War II.

Going to be about a six-hour train ride, watching vast grain fields roll past and covered in snow this time of year.

First stop, Slovyansk.

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

KELLY: Slovyansk is a small city. Its residents have lived through a lot these last eight years. Back in 2014, those Russian-backed separatists seized Slovyansk. It was the first city they took. They held it three months. Then the Ukrainian army fought and took it back. Walk around the town today and you will see a building just destroyed by shelling, by mortar fire, but you will also stumble across scenes of joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

KELLY: Over my shoulder I'm watching kids sledding and playing on a giant snowbank. We are in the central square of Slovyansk. There's a big banner. It says glory to Ukraine, glory to heroes.

I walk over to a couple watching their 4-year-old daughter in a pink snow suit squeal her way down the snow mound.

VITA MILKO: (Speaking Russian).

ZHENIA: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: Hear that? Russian. That's our interpreter, Zhenia. He is Ukrainian, from this part of Ukraine. But like many people here, Russian is his first language. He's told me he instinctively switches when he gets close to home.

ZHENIA: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: What'd she say?

ZHENIA: She says, I am...

KELLY: The mom answers in Russian. Her name is Vita Milko. She's 41. She remembers driving through this city in 2014 as bodies lay in the street.

We ask, what if Ukraine hadn't fought, hadn't taken the city back? She glances at her 4-year-old daughter as her husband bends down to adjust her mittens.

MILKO: (Through interpreter) I'm trying not to think about that. I'm very happy that this region was freed, that they said it was freed, and I would like all other cities to be free as well.

KELLY: Those other cities Vita is talking about lie even farther east. The Kyiv government calls them temporarily occupied territories. But temporarily - that's doing a lot of work there. The territories were seized in 2014. The Ukraine army never won them back. And Russia has never formally annexed them, either, leaving the people who live there in limbo - cut off from Ukraine, cut off from Russia, cut off from the world.

To get there, or as close as we can get, we hire a driver to take us another three hours farther east to Stanytsia Luhanska. I'll fill in a few details as we go because we have five checkpoints to get through first.

ZHENIA: First is that.

KELLY: The checkpoints are roadblocks, concrete barriers that grow more frequent the farther east you go. They're manned by a combination of police, Ukrainian National Guard and JFO. That's Joint Forces Operation, the Ukrainian military outfit that oversees the front. And I say the front because the active fighting that began eight years ago in Donbas has never stopped.

Passing bus stops painted blue and yellow, blue and yellow stripes painted around the lampposts here, as blue and yellow is the colors of the Ukrainian flag. And a clear message painted after 2014 - this is Ukraine. This is not Russia.

We pass the second checkpoint no problem - tense moment at the third.

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

KELLY: Three heavily armed guards - ahead of us, a van has been made to pull over, passengers made to get out, line up for document inspection. We hold up every press pass, every American passport in the van.

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

KELLY: Checkpoint 4 down - last one.

Easiest one yet. We're through.

At last, we pull into a slushy parking lot in Stanytsia Luhanska. Buses idle, Ukrainian flags fly in odd juxtaposition to the red Soviet star prominent on the traffic circle alongside. This here is the only crossing right now between the rest of Ukraine and the northernmost occupied territory. It's not a national border. It's a pedestrian bridge. No cars - high over the Siverskyi Donets river. People are wheeling suitcases, pushing old people in wheelchairs, pushing babies in strollers.

NATALIA: My name is Natalia.

KELLY: Natalia, hi. This is your baby?

NATALIA: Yes.

KELLY: Natalia has just crossed the bridge back to this side, the side where the Kyiv government holds sway. We agreed to use Natalia's first name only - same for almost everyone we interviewed - because of fears about speaking freely.

And where were you coming from?

NATALIA: (Through interpreter) From Lugansk.

KELLY: Natalia was visiting her mom, who lives in Luhansk, the biggest city in the northernmost part of the occupied territories. What's it like there, with so much talk these days of yet more war?

NATALIA: (Through interpreter) Yeah, people are scared, but nothing changed. You can still see the products on the shelves in the shops.

KELLY: Oh, that's good. So electricity is fine?

NATALIA: Yes. Yes.

KELLY: There are things to eat. Do you want Luhansk to be Ukraine or to go to Russia?

NATALIA: (Through interpreter) The main thing is no war.

KELLY: You almost don't even care as long as it's peace.

NATALIA: Yes. Yes.

KELLY: I understand. Yeah.

NATALIA: Maybe Russia.

KELLY: Why?

NATALIA: (Through interpreter) It's more stable country.

KELLY: She just wants peace, but she also thinks Russia is a more stable country. I'm about to ask her more about this when the man she is traveling with appears, shoots me a dirty look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Sorry. Bye-bye. Bye-bye.

KELLY: OK.

He tugs her away. He tells us things would be calmer if we weren't here. It's not clear if he means Americans or journalists or both. A lot of people here decline to talk. Most are not rude. They just walk past - no eye contact. Then I spot an older woman in a fur hat. She won't talk on tape, but she'll talk.

She doesn't want to speak on tape because she's scared. But she says she's crossed just for today 'cause she wants to get a COVID vaccine. She's crossed over from the occupied territories. You can get them there, but only Russian ones, Sputnik ones. She thinks they're not as good. They won't help her, and they have Pfizer right here.

She's saying, I'm so tired of this war. And then she said, please help us. Please - your president, your American president. We need help. We're so tired. This war is dividing us. And then she said, thank you, and she started to cry.

A little while later, after we've stopped to buy bars of dark Ukrainian chocolate and tea to warm up, we meet Valerie - 37 years old, long fur coat, also clutching a cup of hot tea. Valerie is happy to speak with us. She's an English teacher on her way back home inside the occupied territories.

VALERIE: I just arrived from Kyiv. It was a long trip, and I'm a little bit cold.

KELLY: Ah, I'm sorry. I understand. Here, have your tea.

VALERIE: Just a cup of tea, and I'm OK.

KELLY: May we speak to you for a moment while you have your tea?

VALERIE: That's my mom. She lives in Luhansk.

KELLY: Hi, mom. Nice to meet you.

VALERIE: Where are you from?

KELLY: Her mom, Olga, is breaking up a biscuit from her pocket to feed to stray puppies wandering by.

VALERIE: I would like to take them home, but it's impossible.

KELLY: Valerie does not hold back. She makes clear she does not like Russia. She says people should go home where they came from. And she makes clear she and I are having a very different conversation on this side of the crossing than we would have on the other.

VALERIE: You're asking now questions which I am able to answer now. On that part, I would think twice. Will I answer your questions, or will I say that I am sorry, I am busy and I have to go?

KELLY: You're waving - you're waving your tea toward the crossing...

VALERIE: Yes. Yes.

KELLY: ...And saying once you cross that bridge, you cannot speak so freely.

OLGA: You cannot speak at all.

KELLY: Valerie says she supports Ukraine. She thinks most people in the occupied territories do, even if they can't say so. But not everyone can just leave.

And why do you stay? You could go to Kyiv.

VALERIE: We have older relatives of older age who need our care. We can't move and leave them there because this is a family situation. So maybe we can move, but what to do with those who stay?

KELLY: She speaks of how little hope there is for the future. She speaks of how little anyone here wants more war.

Let me introduce you to one last person - our driver, Sasha. He's watching as we talk to people, smoking cigarettes, visiting with other drivers in the parking lot. Now, we do not normally interview anyone we're working with, but it occurs to me that, like our interpreter, this story we're here to report, this is Sasha's story, too.

He has picked up people from this crossing often, many who were fleeing for good, including him. He's made this crossing. He is now internally displaced. Sasha moved his family in 2015 from the separatist territories to a town a couple of hours farther from the border. He talks of friends who've done the same, who have left. Why? I ask.

Why?

SASHA: (Through interpreter) You need to live there to understand because it's very hard. You start value freedom when you do not have it, when you lose it.

KELLY: What we find when Sasha drives us just a few blocks from the border crossing - that's up next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND SUBLAB'S "ISOLATED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.