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What life is like for those living in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a looming battle in southern Ukraine that could change the trajectory of the war. It's a fight that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said today the Ukrainians could win. It is for the city of Kherson, the first major city taken by Russia in the invasion. Most of its residents have fled. Government offices have been cleared. Banks are closed. Even the officials installed by Moscow have now fled. Russian forces have cut off most communications, making it tough to know precisely what is happening inside, so NPR's Franco Ordoñez traveled to the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia to meet with families who were fleeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: The conditions of the cars underline where they're coming from. Doors peppered with bullet holes, windows shattered from falling shrapnel, lots of plastic and tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING AND BABY CRYING)

ORDOÑEZ: Passengers pour out emotionally wrecked and physically exhausted.

VIKTOR: (Through interpreter) I still can't believe that I left there.

ORDOÑEZ: Viktor pulls a red suitcase out of the trunk of a black car. He doesn't care that the clothes inside are the only possessions he and his wife still have left. They made it out.

VIKTOR: (Through interpreter) The madness.

ORDOÑEZ: His wife, Nadiya, says it's difficult to comprehend the last few weeks - the constant shelling, the dead bodies, the fear.

NADIYA: (Through interpreter, crying) I never saw such a gestapo in my life. They executed a whole street. They killed a 9-year-old girl.

ORDOÑEZ: NPR could not verify her claims. But still shaking, her eyes dart throughout the parking lot as Ukrainian officers check their passports and take photos. She asked that her last name not be used to protect loved ones still in Kherson.

NADIYA: (Through interpreter) I can't believe I'm here in Ukraine. It will take time to understand and get used to it somehow.

ORDOÑEZ: A man who asked to be called Artyom volunteers at a shelter in the city of Zaporizhzhia. It's a shelter for Kherson evacuees like himself. He's worried about his pregnant wife and her family, who are stuck in Kherson.

ARTYOM: (Through interpreter) Her mother didn't want to leave, so my wife went to speak with her and got stuck there.

ORDOÑEZ: Artyom and his wife talk whenever they can get a signal. She's four months pregnant, and she tells him when the baby kicks.

ARTYOM: (Through interpreter) This will be my first child, a girl, Eva.

ORDOÑEZ: Artyom and his wife fled Kherson in the spring, but she worried about her mother, so she went back.

ARTYOM: (Through interpreter) She needs to stay alive. God forbid something happens to her. You know the situation. Someone could fancy her.

ORDOÑEZ: She stays home as much as she can, but she needs to sell her garden's potatoes and other vegetables at a local street market for money.

ARTYOM: (Through interpreter) She tells me, relax. Don't worry. I understand. Calm down. Breathe. I'm fine.

ORDOÑEZ: Before the war, Kherson was a city of just over 320,000 people. Its exiled deputy mayor Roman Holovnia estimates there are only about 50,000 left. He called some collaborators and said others are people who just can't leave. Many are older. Others have few resources.

ROMAN HOLOVNIA: (Through interpreter) The situation is intense.

ORDOÑEZ: He says they live in a constant state of fear that Russians will walk into their home, carjack them, or worse.

HOLOVNIA: (Through interpreter) If you have a patriotic tattoo, it's 90% likely you're going to be detained.

ORDOÑEZ: Artyom says he and his wife generally try to keep their conversations light. They worry that Russians are listening in, but it's hard to ignore the shelling. It's scary, but they think it means the Ukrainians are getting closer.

ARTYOM: (Through interpreter) You can see it on her face when our guys are hitting and the Russians are retreating.

ORDOÑEZ: He just wants them to hurry up so he can get his wife and their baby to their six-month checkup, and that will be in Ukrainian-held territory. Franco Ordoñez, NPR news, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.