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Residents flee Ukraine's second-biggest city under Russian bombardment


Kharkiv is Ukraine's second-biggest city after Kyiv, and right now it is facing daily strikes from Russian forces who pushed across the border earlier this month in a renewed military offensive. Dozens of people have died in the last week, most due to guided bombs launched from Russia. The U.S. does not allow Ukraine to shoot long-range weapons into Russia to deter those bombs. Our Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis was in Kharkiv today and she's with me now. Hey, Joanna.


KELLY: So I know you have been to this city a few times at this point. How would you describe the mood that you found there today?

KAKISSIS: So, Mary Louise, Kharkiv is Ukraine's intellectual and cultural heart, so it's got a rebellious spirit. About a million people live here - that's about half of the pre-war population - and many have refused to leave. The cafes, the restaurants, they're still open. I've seen skateboarders and dance troupes in all the city parks. But I have to say, the last couple of weeks have been very hard on the city. And residents are the most worried I've ever seen them, especially after a couple of big strikes.

About a week ago, Russia bombed a major printing house here, killing seven employees and destroying tens of thousands of books. And then this past Saturday, a massive shopping center was hit. Nineteen people have been confirmed dead there. The director of the printing house told us Russian forces hit it with four missiles. And the shopping center, meanwhile, was hit by two guided bombs, which destroyed most of the building.

KELLY: OK, I have a couple of follow-ups. One, how much warning do people there have when these bombs are incoming? And two, is Ukraine trying to shoot them down?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's a good question. Not really. The Russians shoot these bombs from jets in their own airspace and they are notoriously inaccurate. Because Kharkiv is about 20 miles from the Russian border, it doesn't take long - just a few minutes, the military told us - for the bomb to hit. So sometimes there isn't even time for an air raid siren to go off or for people to reach the bomb shelter.

KELLY: Ah. The shopping center you mentioned that was hit by these bombs, you spoke to people who were there. What did they tell you?

KAKISSIS: So we spoke to an employee injured in the explosion. Her name is Viktoriya Kitsenko. She's 53 and she worked in the wallpaper division. The shopping complex is called Epicenter, and it's like the Ukrainian version of Home Depot, for some context. Viktoriya said she was going through these wallpaper orders when she heard a blast and felt this rush of unbearable heat. Then the roof caved in and she just, from there, realized that she was injured. And she says, surprisingly, that she wasn't shocked that she was hit. In Kharkiv, she says, everyone feels like they could be next.

VIKTORIYA KITSENKO: (Through interpreter) We go to bed and pray to wake up healthy and alive in our apartments and our houses. And so we live like this every day, from morning to evening and from evening to morning.

KAKISSIS: And, Mary Louise, as she was talking, Anatoliy Ostapenko (ph), a retiree who lives near the shopping center - he was walking by, and he overheard our conversation.

ANATOLIY OSTAPENKO: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: He's saying, you know, he's angry that the U.S. does not allow Ukraine to use long-range American weapons to bomb Russian military targets and deter the Russians from launching these guided bombs on Kharkiv. Anatoliy said maybe President Biden is afraid of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And as a result, he says, the Russians are going to kill us all.

KELLY: Say more on that point he just made. Why is the U.S. reluctant to allow Ukraine to strike inside Russia? And is it just the U.S. that's raising objections to that?

KAKISSIS: Well, the White House has said that using long-range American weapons to strike Russian territory could actually escalate the war. And indeed, the Kremlin has warned that it would. But the head of NATO, for instance, says Russia has already escalated the hostilities here and Ukraine should be able to properly defend itself in places like Kharkiv. Now, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, has joined this call. And he said if Ukraine is allowed to shoot military targets in Russia, it could change the dynamics of the war and possibly make life a little safer in Kharkiv.

KELLY: NPR's Joanna Kakissis. She's been out reporting today in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Thanks, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Mary Louise. 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.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.