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Ukrainian civilians living close to the frontlines say they feel trapped

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, says the new Russian offensive has begun. Cities in the east and south are believed to be the main targets. One that has been under attack is Mykolaiv. NPR's Brian Mann and Tim Mak traveled there recently and found large numbers of civilians still living close to the front lines.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: A few months ago, Mykolaiv was a busy port city on the Black Sea with nearly half a million people. But as we passed through checkpoints on the edge of the city, the place feels hollowed out. A lot of people have fled.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: We're driving through the center of Mykolaiv now, and we're passing a large convoy of troop-carrying trucks packed with Ukrainian soldiers.

MAK: We check in with a military officer who gives his name as Dmitra. He tells us the main Russian front lines are close.

DMITRA: About 50 kilometers or short.

MANN: The Russians are roughly 30 miles away, Dmitra says - maybe closer. There's no active fighting in the city. But he says missiles land here on a daily basis.

DMITRA: Day after day, rocket missile, cruise missile.

MAK: Through the day, as we talk to people in Mykolaiv, the air raid sirens sound again and again.

MANN: I can hear in the distance now just a steady rumble of explosions. I don't know whether it's missile strikes, whether it's artillery.

MAK: Despite the danger, Mykolaiv isn't abandoned. It's impossible to say just how many civilians are still here, but it's a lot - tens of thousands, at least.

MANN: On a street downtown, we find Yulia Rozhkova at a little kiosk that's still open selling coffee.

YULIA ROZHKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: Rozhkova tells us she has a disability and mental health issues, too, that make it impossible for her to leave her home.

MANN: We hear this kind of thing a lot from people who've stayed behind, despite warnings that a new Russian offensive is coming.

MAK: Some people don't want to leave their homes. Others are elderly or tell us they're too poor to travel or have no place to go.

MANN: We go to a children's hospital that officials here say was hit recently by Russian cluster bombs that shattered windows and injured staff.

IRYNA TKACHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: The medical director here, Dr. Iryna Tkachenko, tells us half of the kids have been evacuated, but the rest are still here. "We're still operating at full capacity," she says. "There are wounded kids, injured, so we keep operating."

MANN: Dr. Tkachenko looks exhausted. We ask what it's like for her trying to keep it together under these conditions, with the war so close.

TKACHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: She kind of sighs, and she says, "what do you want me to tell you? Half our doctors left, and the people who remain are working 24/7 without a break. It's heavy on us. It's exhausting, but we keep on going."

(CROSSTALK)

MANN: The city's main water supply has also failed, and we find volunteers distributing fresh drinking water to people like Vladislav Dmitrivitch. He's 85 and tells us he and his wife feel trapped.

VLADISLAV DMITRIVITCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: "Because of the war," he says, "half a million people in this town are left without water."

MANN: As we talk to people, those air raid sirens don't let up. We get an alert that another Russian projectile has struck and exploded a couple miles away.

VLADIMIR TOPCHY: Welcome Ukraine. Welcome Mykolaiv Zoo.

MAK: That's Vladimir Topchy, head of the city zoo here. He shows us where Russian projectiles have landed on the zoo grounds, making small craters among the elephant pens and the tiger cages.

MANN: His groundskeepers are collecting piles of scrap metal from the bombs and missiles.

TOPCHY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: "The Russians are just idiots," he says. "They don't know what they're doing."

MANN: Topchy takes us up a staircase to a platform where we find ourselves eye to eye with one of his giraffes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

TOPCHY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: He tells us they have to keep the temperature just right to keep the giraffe healthy. Seventeen degrees Celsius is perfect. Sixteen degrees is too cold. But he's not sure the power will stay on. It already failed once for a full day.

TOPCHY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: Topchy says right now, the animals aren't safe here, and neither are the humans.

MAK: Ukrainian officials say in places like Bucha and Mariupol, thousands of civilians have already been killed by the Russians. If the next phase of the Russian invasion reaches into cities like this one where so many people are still living, the toll is certain to rise.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Mak.

MANN: And I'm Brian Mann in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "CRYING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.