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Ukraine's southern coast is enduring non-stop Russian bombardment


While Ukrainians are recapturing occupied land in the northeast of the country, cities like Mykolaiv on the southern coast face constant Russian bombardment. If the Russian forces succeed in their move westward, Mykolaiv would be the last major population center on the way to the coveted port of Odesa. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Nearly every day in Mykolaiv, there is news of a bombing - at a university, a cash machine, an apartment block. A few weeks ago, a bus stop was hit. Viktoria Komarova (ph) and her father, Andriy, were walking their dog, Sam, nearby.

VIKTORIA KOMAROVA: This was a street that we walk every day. But now I can't. (Through interpreter) I can't imagine walking the same street again.

KAKISSIS: Her father and six other bystanders were killed, so was Sam the dog. And at least 20 others were wounded, including Komarova, whose legs are broken in 10 places. As she recovers in the hospital, she hears Russian shelling every night.

KOMAROVA: This is our motherland. And we don't want to leave this city. And maybe this was our mistake.

KAKISSIS: A couple of days later, on the other side of town, bombs hit a gated community of mansions overlooking the sea. The blast awoke a neighbor, who gives his name as Piotr Leonidovich (ph).

PIOTR LEONIDOVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He says he ran outside and saw smoke billowing from the home of his next door neighbor, 74-year-old Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, a grain-trading entrepreneur and one of the richest men in Ukraine.

LEONIDOVICH: (Through interpreter) I called him and his wife, Raisa, over and over. But they didn't pick up. Then the emergency services came and found their bodies. The missile hit their basement shelter where they were sleeping.

(Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He points to the house, which has collapsed. Workers clear away the rubble.

Yeah. Oh, my God. It's totally destroyed.

Unlike other tycoons in Ukraine, Vadaturskyi was a self-made man. He helped make Ukraine a key grain exporter. His agribusiness company, Nibulon, built its own river fleet to transport grain. Nibulon employs more than 7,000 people.

LEONIDOVICH: (Non-English language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Like many in Mykolaiv, Vadaturskyi's neighbor believes the Russians assassinated the tycoon. People here see it as part of a pattern. Early in the war, on March 29, bombs hit an office building where the Mykolaiv region's governor, Vitaliy Kim, worked.

VITALIY KIM: I know that I'm a target for the Russian because it was my window. For me, the only problem is they killed people in my crew. I don't care about building.

KAKISSIS: We meet outside that ruined building, where 37 of Kim's colleagues died. He survived because he overslept and was late for work. He's convinced some in Mykolaiv want Russia to win and are passing on information to help Russian forces strike Ukrainian targets. His office is offering $100 rewards for information on collaborators.

When collaborators are caught, what do they say?

KIM: Some of them are crazy. Some of them truly believe in Russia. Different motivation, different people.

KAKISSIS: Local authorities say hundreds of suspected spies have been detained. Like most people we spoke with in Mykolaiv, logistics manager Serhii Zubenko (ph) supports the hunt for spies. He fled the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces are now trying to recapture.

SERHII ZUBENKO: (Through interpreter) We're trying to fight to get our land back, so it's causing the Russians to get really aggressive. It freaks me out that there are individuals walking around here helping the Russians during this war.

KAKISSIS: No one in Mykolaiv, shares openly pro-Russian sentiments with a reporter. But you do hear nostalgia for the USSR from residents like Tatiana Mazets (ph), a retired marine engineer.

TATIANA MAZETS: (Through interpreter) Back then, we were all friends. We got along really well. We went to university for free. And when we finished, we knew a job was waiting for us. I got a job in shipbuilding and designed ships for 40 years.

KAKISSIS: Mykolaiv used to be the shipbuilding capital of the Soviet Union. Tetiana Mitkovska (ph), a historian who runs the city's shipbuilding museum, says for decades, Mykolaiv constructed all kinds of sea vessels, including freighters, ferries and, of course, warships.

TETIANA MITKOVSKA: (Through interpreter) And during the war right now, Ukraine has sunk at least 15 Russian warships that were previously Soviet. The irony is that these vessels were likely built right here in Mykolaiv.

KAKISSIS: And these attacks show that it's not just the Russians who can carry out precision strikes. Moscow was stunned in April when Ukraine sank the Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, a ship built in Mykolaiv. Before the Russian invasion, half a million people lived in Mykolaiv. Now only 200,000 remain. Soldiers sip cappuccinos at the cafes that are still open. Along every street, I see residents carrying giant containers of bottled water that have been trucked into the city. The tap water is undrinkable. It's salty and sulfurous months after the city's main pipeline was hit by a Russian missile.


KAKISSIS: There's so little traffic that busker Ivan Naumov (ph) plays his accordion right on the street.

IVAN NAUMOV: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: He starts to play a Soviet patriotic love song called "Katyusha." But he stops when he gets dirty looks from passers-by.

NAUMOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I love this song, he says. But as you can see, no one wants to hear it anymore.


NAUMOV: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: So he switches to a Ukrainian love song and the mood lightens. But that night, another missile strikes the city.


NAUMOV: (Singing in non-English language).


KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.