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Ukraine claims victory in Kharkiv, but some nearby areas face relentless attacks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We go now to eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have won the battle for the city of Kharkiv. But some areas just outside the city limits are still coming under relentless Russian attack. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from a town where most residents have fled and those who remain live in basements for safety.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The city of Derhachi is just 10 miles north of downtown Kharkiv. Yet, as Kharkiv rapidly comes back to life, that's not the case in Derhachi, according to the mayor, Vyacheslav Zadorenko.

VYACHESLAV ZADORENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: "All the supermarkets were damaged or destroyed," he says. "All the businesses are closed." Prior to the February 24 invasion, Derhachi had a population of about 15,000 people. Now the few thousand that remain mostly rely on government food parcels to survive. The mayor is standing in front of the ruins of Derhachi's cultural center.

ZADORENKO: (Through interpreter) In this place, all the help that we get from our international support, from the volunteers, food supplies and medicine, it was stored here at this moment. During the wartime, it was always under attack. But a week ago, they did a missile launch here. It was, like, controlled missile. And they fully destroyed the building.

BEAUBIEN: The Russians also bombed Derhachi's post office, the city hall, the Ukrainian orthodox church and a museum. Zadorenko claims the strikes are an orchestrated campaign to destroy Ukrainian culture. Shelling also tore apart numerous houses and blocks of apartments. I asked what residents in this war-shredded city need most. The mayor doesn't list off food or blankets or medicine.

ZADORENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: He says the goals here are to survive and to win. And both have been at risk over the last three months. Dozens of people have been killed or disappeared in this small community as Ukrainian forces here held off a Russian advance on Kharkiv. On the eastern edge of Derhachi, Olga Lozovna (ph) is trying to keep her two granddaughters alive with a line of white chalk. The 58-year-old points to a faded chalk line she's drawn on the pavement that the kids are not supposed to cross.

OLGA LOZOVNA: (Through interpreter) God forbid they go out of my sight. Like, they never go behind a building or anything like that. Not there, only here. Here, at least we have some level of protection.

BEAUBIEN: The line is an arc extending about 10 yards from the covered stoop that leads to the basement where they've been living for the last three months. Her granddaughters, who are 4 and 9, aren't allowed outside the line. Although, the younger one on a pink scooter sometimes pushes the boundary.

LOZOVNA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Lozovna says there's less shelling now than in the first weeks of the war. But, she adds, she can still hear the booming of artillery rumbling in the distance. The apartment block across the street from them is scarred from shrapnel and has all its windows shattered.

LOZOVNA: (Through interpreter) We - pretty much, we sit only in the basement. This thing you hear there, the rumble, it's really scary to me. We sit only in the basement. We don't go anywhere.

BEAUBIEN: Lozovna's daughter, the girls' mom, ventures out to the center of Derhachi to get food rations if and when there are aid distributions. At times, volunteers bring them packets of food. All but two other families in their building have left, which leaves most of the dirt-floored basement to Lozovna and the girls.

LOZOVNA: (Through interpreter) This is the place where we actually - this is the place where we sit, where we entertain ourselves. This is the toilet. This is where our children study. And this is where they try to paint, to do some drawings.

BEAUBIEN: The walls down here are bare brick. There are no windows. And the only light comes from a couple of light bulbs. Farther back in the cavernous basement, they've set up a small, round wood stove to cook on.

LOZOVNA: (Through interpreter) When it's really, really bad and when they have it really badly or shell really badly, we go here because it's a bit deeper. So this is - it's kind of our shelter in this basement.

BEAUBIEN: Their German shepherd, Kila, has been with them since before the invasion.

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

BEAUBIEN: But over time, more and more stray dogs have joined them underground. Lozovna says the dogs are terrified of the explosions.

LOZOVNA: (Through interpreter) They feel even before us.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

LOZOVNA: (Through interpreter) They go straight into the deeper hole. They feel it even before the shelling happens. And you can't get them out.

BEAUBIEN: Less than 10 miles away in Kharkiv, the mood is completely different. Cafes and restaurants are reopening. And public buses started running again for the first time since the invasion. But for Lozovna and her granddaughters, that's all happening way outside the chalk semi-circle around the entrance to their basement.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Derhachi, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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