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Volunteers in Ukraine risk their lives to distribute supplies under constant shelling

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's military has lost ground around Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv. This is in the northeast of the country, a region right on the Russian border. It's been subject to intense fighting since the war began nearly three months ago. Some cities in Ukraine have been under constant shelling. It's been so bad that, in some places, residents are afraid to go out for food or medicine. But some volunteers are willing to brave missiles and shells to help out their neighbors. A heads up - you'll hear some of those explosions in this report from NPR's Eyder Peralta in Kharkiv.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: After a long day, Borys Shelahurov likes to finish off with a cigarette outside his apartment building. He's telling me how the last few days have been intense, how missiles sound a lot like planes. But then it's another threat that interrupts us.

BORYS SHELAHUROV: And we're all just, like, watching the sky, looking for the plane. And then, like (imitating explosion).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SHELAHUROV: [Expletive]. [Expletive].

PERALTA: Shelling close enough to shake buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

PERALTA: So that's it. Like, that means go inside.

SHELAHUROV: Yeah. We should.

PERALTA: Yeah.

The day actually started off quiet. Shelahurov zoomed across Kharkiv in a beat-up sedan. The city was empty, but there were still signs that this was once a fun place.

Look, it's a marijuana coffee shop.

SHELAHUROV: Yeah. We like that shop.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: Shelahurov is 27 years old. He plays soccer, and he studied in the U.S. a few years. But Kharkiv drew him back.

SHELAHUROV: Well, I love this city. Even when I was in America, I would miss this city a lot.

PERALTA: He used to run a craft beer company. And right before this war started, he was learning how to code to join the legions in the city who work for the big tech companies. But all of that is in the past. Now he drives around the city, delivering food and medicine to people in need. And this as Russian troops are lobbing mortars, shells and missiles into the city constantly.

I mean, when you're driving around this city, is that, like - do you even think about it?

SHELAHUROV: About rockets?

PERALTA: Yeah.

SHELAHUROV: I do. Well, for me, it's more comfortable to be in the car than in the house.

PERALTA: He figures, if he keeps moving, there is less of a chance a missile can find him.

SHELAHUROV: If you are, like, on the way and you see it's coming, you can turn around, you can do things. And you can, like, somehow escape it.

PERALTA: This morning, he's actually looking for cat food. Some cats have been abandoned. Elderly people can't get food for their pets. He spots the one pet store that is still open, and he swerves into a parking spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

PERALTA: He is always in a hurry. He takes about half a bag - what he can afford now out of his own pocket - and darts out. I tell him that I imagined him doing more heroic things, not something so mundane as buying cat food.

SHELAHUROV: Well, yeah, but, like, someone has to do it. You see it's not many people outside of the street. If you would be here in normal time, there would be a lot of people walking around.

PERALTA: And even in the middle of a war, someone has to feed the cats. He drives across town to a warehouse where his friend Alice Venitseva runs Station Kharkiv. They were the first volunteer group to assemble in Kharkiv after the war broke out in Donbas in 2014. This war, she says, is 100 times worse. So she's converted this auto parts warehouse into a humanitarian hub. Dozens of volunteers take orders from people in need and try to dispatch it as best they can. Here, there are no humanitarian corridors.

ALICE VENITSEVA: (Through interpreter) Nobody knows what is actually happening and why they're shelling the areas that they're shelling. Absolutely chaos there. And they just shell it randomly.

PERALTA: Sometimes, she says, volunteers come and fill their cars with flour, pasta, potatoes and bread and insist on driving towards the missiles.

VENITSEVA: (Through interpreter) We're not sending anyone there. It's their own responsibility. It's their own choice. It's their own choice. If they're ready to go under shelling - I personally think it's a bad idea to go there. I think you don't have to go there because it's dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

PERALTA: Borys Shelahurov fills his car with food and takes off. He drops some off at a college dorm where workers had run out of money to buy food. He drops more at a mortuary that holds special meaning. His aunt died when a shell hit her apartment, and then his uncle gave up, let himself die. The lady at the mortuary, he says, was kind. And now he's bringing her food so she can keep working. That night, when the shelling begins, we sleep in the basement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The next morning, we wake up to more shells. And I ask him over breakfast why he stays here. Back in 2017, everyone told him to stay in the U.S., where he was studying. But from afar, he watched the Maidan protests. He watched Ukrainians topple a Russian-backed president. And he decided he wanted to come home.

SHELAHUROV: And when I came back in 2017, I actually saw the difference. It was actually kind of, like, modernized.

PERALTA: Things got better.

SHELAHUROV: Yeah.

PERALTA: Suddenly, Kharkiv looked more like Europe, and that convinced him that Ukraine had a future. All he wants right now is to help keep this place together.

Is there ever a scenario where you imagine leaving?

SHELAHUROV: If I'm going to be a last person, yeah.

PERALTA: This war, he says, has brought Ukrainians together. It has made him proud of his country. He's in awe of how it's putting up a fight against the mighty Russians. And as he says that, the war interrupts us.

SHELAHUROV: We are defending ourselves. They could not take Kyiv. Cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SHELAHUROV: Kharkiv is still OK, too.

PERALTA: Yeah.

SHELAHUROV: Yeah.

PERALTA: I don't know. What do you think this has done to you?

SHELAHUROV: I don't know. But we better probably go for now.

PERALTA: Yeah.

SHELAHUROV: (Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: The shells settled in our stomachs in a knot like dread. We get behind a solid wall and, for a moment, I see fear in Borys Shelahurov's eyes. But it's not long before he's behind the wheel again, speeding through the empty streets of Kharkiv. And this week, he got a respite. Ukrainian forces pushed Russians away from the city and, for the first time since this war began, the city was safe from shells.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.