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Residents of a Ukrainian city prepare for a seige

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A top Russian commander says his country is planning in its second offensive to try to take control of eastern and southern Ukraine. We're going to focus on one city in that area this morning, Mykolaiv, a strategic port on the Black Sea that Russian troops are already approaching. NPR's Brian Mann was in Mykolaiv yesterday and found Ukrainian soldiers and civilians preparing for a siege.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When I turned up at the public relief center in Mykolaiv, it looks at first like the kind of busy chaos you see in an American city after a tornado or a hurricane.

DMYTRO DAVYDENKO: Every day, 400 people worked here as volunteers.

MANN: That's Dmytro Davydenko, who helped organize this operation. Workers load water and canned goods into the backs of people's cars. But when I ask what supplies they need most here, Davydenko says what they really want is more bullets.

DAVYDENKO: First of all, it is military ammunition - yes? - for soldiers who become the first line of defense.

MANN: This isn't a natural disaster. It's war. This aid center is heavily fortified. And off to one side, there's a box of Molotov cocktails, also made by volunteers.

DAVYDENKO: We are all brave people, and we want to get victory. And we will do it.

MANN: In eastern and southern Ukraine, Russia is turning cities like this one into battlefields. Mariupol and other towns have already been devastated. Now Russia hits Mykolaiv daily with rockets. Military sources tell NPR Russian ground troops are active less than 20 miles away. In the center of Mykolaiv, an evacuation of women and children is underway. An elderly woman named Lida walks toward the buses with the help of two canes.

LIDA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "Russians are launching bombs and missiles into our neighborhoods," Lida says. "Houses were burning, so we understood we have to leave." Another woman, Iryena, fled a town east of here, already occupied by Russians. She says she's afraid of being trapped.

IRYENA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "The Russians don't let people out," Iryena says. "They're abusing people." But officials in Mykolaiv say roughly 200,000 civilians are staying. Some want to help the defense of the city. Others just want to hang on, reluctant to join Ukraine's massive wave of displaced people and refugees. That means Mykolaiv has to prepare for the Russian assault while also struggling to maintain basic services. The water system has already collapsed because of Russian rocket attacks, and now the electric grid is being targeted.

VADYM DANYLKIV: We have today about 60,000 private houses that has no electricity at all.

MANN: Vadym Danylkiv, who runs Mykolaiv's electric utility, says his linemen and repair crews are in the field every day trying to keep the power on while the Russians attack.

DANYLKIV: Every day, our worker work to avoid this electricity disconnection, and so it's very hard work, always with bombing, always is shooting.

MANN: Do you have a plan for what you will do if the Russians come, if they push through?

DANYLKIV: No, I hope it's impossible. I think soldiers will halt, and Mykolaiv will be always Ukraine.

MANN: I hear this again and again. People here believe Ukraine's army will hold the line. I speak to a Ukrainian soldier who gives his name as Denys as he boards a truck going to the front lines.

DENYS: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "Our land defends us," Denys tells me. "There are a lot of miracles that happen at the front lines. This is our land, and it helps us stay away from danger." Military sources here say high morale will help slow the Russian ground attack when it begins in earnest. But to stop the Russians and push them back, Ukrainians say they'll need more weapons, more guns and ammunition and more heavy artillery.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Mykolaiv.

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