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Revisiting Ukraine's front line in Slovyansk

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbas, the front line of the Russian invasion has not moved in weeks. Cities there see shelling every night. Ukrainian officials have ordered evacuations, saying that with scarce resources like fuel and the constant threat of Russian missiles, it's just too dangerous to stay. But in a recent visit to the frontline city of Slovyansk, NPR's Elissa Nadworny found a shuttered town where residents persist.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When you enter the city, a metal sign above the road greets you. Slovyansk is Ukraine, it reads. And after more than six months of Russia's invasion, it still is. The electricity here is spotty, and buses aren't running. Most of the people you see in the city center are on bikes because of it.

OKSANA MORGUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Oksana Morgun and her friend Oleksandr Olaiarov are among them. Morgun, with a bag of grapes tied to her bright orange bike, says it's a really scary existence.

MORGUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: They're biking together for safety. They always try and stick together if they can. Olaiarov lives with his wife and three kids next door to Morgun and her husband.

OLEKSANDR OLAIAROV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: They don't sleep at night because of the shelling. Their neighbors sleep in hallways to get away from the windows. Morgun and Olaiarov have been friends for a long time, and that friendship has kept them sane.

MORGUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Every night, they're calling each other, asking, are you OK? How are you? Community is really important, they tell us, especially when you're in a state of survival.

MORGUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Morgun works as an assistant at the market. There, she says she can see who's still here, which makes her feel less alone.

MORGUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: According to the mayor's office, about 20% of residents remain, despite constant shelling, spotty water access and no natural gas. Morgun tells me people stay because leaving without a place to live feels scarier. Walking through town, most shops are boarded up. In addition to the market, there's a very limited amount of businesses open, two or three coffee shops, mostly kept up and running by the Ukrainian military, fighting on the front lines just 20 minutes away.

PETROVICH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "We're here relaxing," says a soldier, who goes by the call sign Petrovich. He doesn't give us his full name for safety reasons.

PETROVICH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "The lines haven't moved much in recent weeks," he tells us. And a stalemate for troops means you're constantly on edge without much happening. A few blocks from the coffee shop, several onlookers have come to see the damage from a Russian missile that hit a residential building a few hours before we visit.

VIKTORIA BATYCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Viktoria Batychenko is crying as she tells us about the pain she feels.

BATYCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "I'm thinking about the people who have no home now," she says. She tells us about the history here. In 2014, the city was taken over briefly by Russian-backed forces when they annexed Crimea and part of the Donbas.

BATYCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Here, they worked to rebuild after that.

BATYCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "We're Ukrainians," she says. "We've always been part of Ukraine. I want to live in Ukraine." Nearby, Liubov Maglii, with an orange kerchief tied around her head, is listening to our conversation.

LIUBOV MAGLII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "This is my house," she says, pointing just beyond the crater left by the missile.

All by yourself, or are you with someone?

MAGLII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: She's widowed. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all left Slovyansk for Kyiv or Europe.

MAGLII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: She passes the days writing and reciting poetry. She shares one with us. It's about bringing peace to her home.

MAGLII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Let there be peace that is so hoped for, the poem goes.

MAGLII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Let the storms go, she finishes, and long live the Donbas and Slovyansk.

MAGLII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Slovyansk, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.