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What it's like for people in Kharkiv, one of Ukraine's worst hit cities

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Kharkiv is Ukraine's second-largest city and one of the worst hit in the war right now. About half the population has escaped, and food is starting to diminish. We wanted to know what life is like for people in Kharkiv, so we first reached Kseniya Kovaleva, a journalist living there. She said that in the first week of the war, she hid from the shelling in her car in an underground parking lot with friends, but that quickly changed.

KSENIYA KOVALEVA: Now it is a month of war already, and I stay in the house. I don't go under the ground to hide because you just feel really sick and tired, both mentally and physically, from staying under the ground the whole time. So almost all people I know stopped hiding under the ground and returned back to their homes because you feel no longer afraid of this as much feeling really very, very tired of the constant shelling and hiding from the bombs.

RASCOE: She said that the bombing is so incessant, it's become another aspect of life.

KOVALEVA: Sometimes, it's a bit calmer. Sometimes, it's a bit worse. But bombs are falling on the city all the time, every day, every night. And this is what I hear constantly. So now sometimes it seems for me like it is just rain or something like that because I really got used to the sound.

RASCOE: Kovaleva also says she refuses to leave her home, even with the danger.

KOVALEVA: All these volunteers who send humanitarian help from somewhere far away, from abroad - they are nice, and this is very useful. But still, you need to be here to deliver that stuff or to help, mentally, people who are remaining here.

RASCOE: We reached another volunteer in Kharkiv, Oleksandr Honcharov. I asked him what he's doing to help the people of his city.

OLEKSANDR HONCHAROV: I create some volunteer center, and we help people. In first, we work with restaurant. We make some food package. And our volunteers deliver this food package to the - some part of the city, to a place where people need food.

RASCOE: When you're going out and making these deliveries, it seems like that would be really dangerous because there's a lot of shelling going on right now.

HONCHAROV: Yeah, these are pretty dangerous. But for now, you know, slow. Volunteer tend to work - some, like, 40 people. Some like our military, some like our firefighters, some like our doctors is superhero now because all of them tried to help. For example, people with car come to us and said, hello, my name - I don't know - maybe Igor - I have a car, and I want to help you. What I should do? Tell me what - where I should - I'm going? Now I search and try to give body armor to people. For example, if you want, I can show you - I have body armor now.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

HONCHAROV: This is body armor. And every day, for example, I try to wear this body armor because if something happens, this body armor can save my life and can save a life of the volunteers.

RASCOE: Yeah. What do you see when you're going out and, like, making these deliveries? Like, what is the city looking like?

HONCHAROV: It hurts me to see all the destruction. So when my favorite city and my favorite place are blown up or broke window after the bombing, it's terrible when you see the place where you like to drink coffee, and now this place was destroyed. Many people tried to support each other. Many people tried to help. For example, public service clean up the city. And when I am going and I see some place in 5- or 10-kilometer bombing and these people clean the city - wow. Wow.

RASCOE: What does the city need most right now?

HONCHAROV: One of the biggest - what we need is to close the sky and Russian army not bombing us. If you say it about people, first of all, we need food. And we try to help our soldiers to buy some special equipment, and we try to save a life. We try to save a life of the people who live in Kharkiv. We try to save the lives of people who stays (ph) in Kharkiv.

RASCOE: Are civilians, like, able to leave now, the ones that do want to get out? Are - can they safely leave?

HONCHAROV: I don't want to get out. If someone want to go to another part of Ukraine, we can help. We can get this people and try to get him to help. So if you want to leave the city now, I said only about Kharkiv - now is a possibility. We are not - some, like, Mariupol, is worse, very bad situation.

RASCOE: You're staying for the duration of this? You don't plan to leave? You're going to stay?

HONCHAROV: No, no, no, no, no. I stay in my country. This is my country. This is my city. I stay here because now here I help our people. I help our military. So in this war, all of us should do something. If everybody do something small, all of us make something big. We can fight. And I think we should be - we win this war. And we say, this is our land. Please go away.

RASCOE: Thank you so much. Oleksandr Honcharov is a war volunteer and a resident of Kharkiv. Please stay safe.

HONCHAROV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.