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Russia pushes back on Ukraine's offensive, forcing many elderly people to flee

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two big military movements are underway at the same time in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are advancing in the southern part of the country. This summerlong offensive is apparently designed to split in half the territory that Russia has seized so far in the war. At the same time, Russia is trying to take more territory, attacking in Ukraine's east. NPR's Brian Mann reports that fighting is forcing people to flee, many of them elderly and alone.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Down in a bomb-proof basement in Kharkiv that looks like a war room, Oleg Ivanov stands in front of a map of the front lines.

OLEG IVANOV: Today evacuation crew are going to two village to evacuate eight people.

MANN: Ivanov, a student before the war, is still in his early 20s. Now he's part of an aid group that rescues civilians caught in the crossfire. He points to a village called Kupiansk about 50 miles away. He says eight people in that area are on the list today.

IVANOV: Now we have active combat, now it's dangerous territory, dangerous evacuation process.

MANN: One of the drivers today is Oleskandr Humaniuk, also in his 20s. We talk outside in the parking lot next to a battered red minivan. This is the rescue vehicle.

OLESKANDR HUMANIUK: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "I've been doing this since the first days of the war," he says. "The first week, I just grabbed a van and took 45 or 50 people to the nearest train station." I ask him if this is dangerous work, and he grins at me like I'm an idiot.

HUMANIUK: It's very dangerous.

MANN: There's a lot of adrenaline, he says.

HUMANIUK: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: Three of his cars have been smashed by shrapnel. Some of his fellow volunteers have been killed. He tugs up his T-shirt and shows me a nasty, dimpled scar right in the middle of his chest.

Is this a bullet?

HUMANIUK: Yeah.

MANN: Where did it go?

HUMANIUK: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: While on a rescue mission, Humaniuk says, a Russian bullet struck him near his heart. It lodged in his lung. He had surgery, and now he's back at it. At this point, we split up. Humaniuk and his team drive toward the front lines in their red van. I head for an aid station in the nearby village of Shevchenkove. Humaniuk agrees to carry along a recorder as he makes his run, driving through tiny half-abandoned villages. At one point on the recording, we hear his evacuation crew meet a woman on the street. They try to convince her to get in the van.

HUMANIUK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

HUMANIUK: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: They tell her it's dangerous here. There's safety and medical care back in Kharkiv. But she refuses to go. She says she has an apartment here, and, like a lot of villagers, she's staying put. At the aid station where I'm waiting in Shevchenkove, the streets are mostly empty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS BLARING)

MANN: A handful of aid workers hunker down as the air raid siren sounds. And then Humaniuk's van pulls up. He says it was all quiet in Kupiansk today, no incoming fire this time. But he has only five passengers, all of them elderly, carrying battered suitcases. Alla Cherniakova from Kupiansk is fleeing with her mother and her father-in-law. They look drained and lost.

ALLA CHERNIAKOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "It's scary at home," she tells me. Her house has been hit by mortars. They were forced to sleep on the floor because of shrapnel. Every day, the Russians bomb, bomb, bomb, she says. And now there's no more electricity, so they had to get out. We set off quickly back toward the relative safety of Kharkiv. In the 18 months since this war began, territory along the Kupiansk front has changed hands again and again. This time, it's the Russians gaining ground. Volunteers and NGO officials say they've evacuated more than 20,000 Ukrainian civilians from this region, many of them in rough shape.

IGOR BODINA: They have been under heavy shelling for long periods. That's why they need, definitely first, psychological help.

MANN: Igor Bodina is waiting for the van at a care center and dormitory that's been set up in Kharkiv. He's the local field manager for an NGO called the International Rescue Committee. He says people often need immediate medical care.

BODINA: They need to understand what will happen with them in the future because they're coming here without any idea what's going on to be.

MANN: But for many of the villagers, there's little comfort to be found here. I find Volodymyr Zagoruiko sitting alone in a little playground behind the care center.

VOLODYMYR ZAGORUIKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "I don't know what will happen to me," he says. "They told me to wait. But where they'll take me, I don't know." Zagoruiko is 60 years old and looks far older. He's wearing a shirt two sizes too large that someone donated. He says he had to leave his cat, and his village is now well behind Russian lines, so there will be no going home anytime soon. When I ask if he has anyone to look out for him, anyone waiting, he shakes his head.

ZAGORUIKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "There's only my mother-in-law, who's 83," he says. "I have no children. There's no one else." One of Ukraine's top generals, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Friday more troops and weapons are needed to stop Russia taking more territory in this region. Aid officials say as the fighting continues around Kupiansk, thousands more villagers may need rescue.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Kharkiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.