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The latest from Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces are trying to repel Russian troops


In northeastern Ukraine, Ukrainian troops are attempting to push back Russian forces from the city of Kharkiv. Russia has shelled this city relentlessly since the first days of the war. But in recent days, the Ukrainians have driven Russian troops back, to the point where most of their incoming artillery can only reach the northern edges of the city.

NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Kharkiv and joins us now. Hey, Jason.


CHANG: So can you just describe what is it like in Kharkiv now, given the Ukrainians' recent advances near there?

BEAUBIEN: You know, to be honest, things are still quite quiet on the streets of central Kharkiv. There's not a lot of traffic. Most businesses remain shut. But these military advances, they're quite new. And here in the city, you can hear the ongoing exchange of mortar fire between the two sides. There's like this booming and rumbling thunder that's off in the distance.

I was talking to the medical director of a public hospital on the north side of our Kharkiv, Olena Poleschuk. And she said that last week, after these Ukrainian forces managed to seize control of one particular village north of the city, everything changed.

OLENA POLESCHUK: (Through interpreter) Before, every night you go to sleep, you can listen to bang, bang, bang. And you understand it's very close to my place. Now, we can hear some rumbling, but it's in the distance. So the difference that we experience here, it's massive, huge.

BEAUBIEN: And significantly, she says that at her hospital, which only treats civilians, they've gone from having dozens of people a day coming in with shrapnel wounds from the shelling to now just one or two a day.

CHANG: Well, what else are you hearing from other residents? Like, do they feel this is permanent, that the Russian threat to the city is mostly over?

BEAUBIEN: Some do and some don't. You know, from the northern edge of Kharkiv, it's just over 10 miles to the Russian border. So even if the Ukrainians push them all the way back, people here tell me there's this constant fear that Russia could retreat, regroup, come back across the border and attack the city again. Even with these recent Ukrainian military successes, the subway stations here in Kharkiv are still full of people who are living down underground because either their houses were destroyed or they're still too afraid to leave.

CHANG: Well, I understand that you were able to go to some of those areas that had been shelled for weeks. What did you see there?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Today, we were able to go to one of the northern suburbs, Saltivka. It was pounded by Russian shelling. And parts of that neighborhood look like the images that you see out of Mariupol. You have row after row of these old, Soviet-style apartment blocks that have been completely destroyed. Ten-story apartment buildings, each with about 150 flats in them, they're bombed. They're burned out. The front facades of some of them have collapsed. And they're now just totally uninhabitable.

CHANG: Well, after all of this bombardment, are people in the city able to access enough food and the basic supplies that they need?

BEAUBIEN: Surprisingly, some grocery stores are open. Others are reopening. They have food on the shelves. But the issue is that it's extremely expensive. People are telling me that basic supplies like rice and cooking oil are costing twice what they did before the invasion. And you have to understand, most people haven't been working. Businesses, as I mentioned, have been shut down. People have been sheltering for weeks on end in basements, so they don't have any money.

I went to a food distribution at a bus station this morning. And there were hundreds and hundreds of people who'd had gotten there before dawn, hoping to get a fairly small box of food with some pasta, some coffee, a couple of jars of cooked meat in it. And I met this one woman, Pahomova Valentina, 74. She's from a neighborhood - that same neighborhood, Saltivka, that I described earlier.

PAHOMOVA VALENTINA: (Through interpreter) I am from Kharkiv originally, but my house is in north Saltivka, so it's absolutely destroyed. No family left, nothing left there. So I'm all alone here.

BEAUBIEN: And she was in tears as she was saying that she's just desperate for this war to end, saying she just can't take it anymore.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien in Kharkiv. Thank you so much, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.