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Relief workers are trying to help people leave a ruined city in Ukraine

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

More than eight months of continuous fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has left the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in ruins. But the Red Cross reports about 10,000 civilians are still there. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on one effort to help them get out.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We arrive at a kindergarten in the town of Kostyantynivka, about 18 miles from Bakhmut. It's just been turned into a center for displaced civilians.

LUBOV: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "Hello, sweeties. Come in. Do you want tea?" asks 61-year-old Lubov. She's afraid to give her last name lest the Russians come after her.

LUBOV: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: It's a beautiful house.

LUBOV: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Oh, my God, it has, like...

She shows me pictures on her cellphone of her 10 kittens and neat brick house she left behind last October and since destroyed by Russian artillery. Now she's renting an apartment in town with two friends. She works at the shelter to forget her sorrows. Lubov says only those who've lived through this can help the new arrivals.

LUBOV: (Through interpreter) Everyone comes here with his own story of misery and pain. But you can't cry and sympathize with them too much. We speak sternly, focus on the here and now so they don't fall apart.

DAVID TAGLIANI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TAGLIANI: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: David Tagliani is an EMT from Seattle who's been in Ukraine since the start of the war. He works with a group called Stay Safe Ukraine that's setting up the new shelter. He says when they try to get people to leave towns near the front line, they always say the same thing.

TAGLIANI: I have lived in this little village my entire life. I've never stepped foot outside it. Why would I go to Kharkiv or Kramatorsk or Kyiv? I don't know anybody there.

BEARDSLEY: That inspired this temporary shelter close to Bakhmut to give people the chance to sleep and think clearly. They can recharge cellphones that have been dead for months due to lack of electricity to let family know they're still alive.

TAGLIANI: The shelter has, you know, food, bunk beds, clothing, the whole nine yards - and internet.

OLEKSANDR NABIULLIN: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Sixty-four-year-old Oleksandr Nabiullin arrived here five days ago after two of his three dogs were killed by shell fire. He brought the third with him. The shelter accepts pets. He says it's taken him days to calm down.

NABIULLIN: (Through interpreter) Being shot at by tanks is a huge psychological strain. For days, I've lived in a dugout I set up under my house.

(Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: He says he's thankful to the support from President Biden and calls the Russians barbarians.

NATASHA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Fifty-four-year-old Natasha (ph), who doesn't want to share her last name, just got out of Bakhmut.

NATASHA: (Through interpreter) I held on until the very end. All of our shops were bombed. A plane flew over my house at 3 in the morning. Everything was shaking. We thought it was the end.

BEARDSLEY: She says if the Russians get past Bakhmut, they will advance in all directions. People here talk about the hundreds of soldiers' unclaimed bodies now starting to decompose as the weather warms.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNLOADING BOXES)

BEARDSLEY: Volunteers arrive with sacks of potatoes and boxes of clothing sent from Germany. Fifty-five-year-old Oleksiy is helping unload. He came from Bakhmut with his 79-year-old mother. He says the winter was terrible.

OLEKSIY: (Through interpreter) We had a wood-burning stove, so we were OK. But other people froze to death.

BEARDSLEY: Oleksiy says they were able to get water at a spring until the Russians shelled them there. He says five of his neighbors went to get water and never came back. We made soup with rainwater, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

BEARDSLEY: As artillery rumbles in the distance, I ask what he thinks about President Vladimir Putin's claim of protecting Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

OLEKSIY: (Through interpreter) He's killing Russian speakers. I don't understand what we did to Putin that he treats us like this. All our lives, we were taught that Ukrainians and Russians are brothers.

BEARDSLEY: These people say before the war, many in Bakhmut felt close to Russia, but no longer.

NATASHA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "We lived normally," says Natasha. "Everything was calm and fine. What did we need protection from?"

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kostyantynivka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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