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Ukrainian fighters lay the groundwork to reclaim land south of the Dnipro River

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was the lone regional capital seized by Russia in the early days of the war. Ukraine's forces were able to retake the city last winter, but not the land south of the Dnipro River, a key waterway. On a recent visit to Kherson, NPR's Joanna Kakissis found Ukrainian fighters who have been quietly laying the groundwork to reclaim that land in a new counteroffensive.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Before the war, the Dnipro River was a source of joy and life on both sides of the riverbank. Locals picnicked on the forested river islands and gardened at their weekend cottages there.

ALEX: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: A 49-year-old soldier named Alex (ph) told me he used to host big barbecues for families and friends on his 17-acre farm near the river's marshlands.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) Now the Russians are on my land. They are living in my home. They are drinking my water.

KAKISSIS: But, Alex predicts, not for long.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) I can tell you this, that the counteroffensive here has started and is ongoing.

KAKISSIS: Russian forces occupy around 15% of Ukraine's land in the east and south. In the Kherson area, the Dnipro River is the front line. NPR spoke to Alex and three other fighters in Kherson crossing that front line and preparing for a big battle to get their land back. They all declined to give their last names for security reasons. And Alex says they also cannot discuss specific details about their missions.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) All I can say is that, generally, today we may be here, and tomorrow we may be on land that the enemy occupies.

KAKISSIS: The fighters live in the city of Kherson, liberated last November.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE EXPLODING)

KAKISSIS: Russian shells and missiles hit the city nearly every day. Russian snipers shoot anyone approaching the river or the bridge. More than 260 civilians have died in the area since November.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL BANGING)

KAKISSIS: We meet Alex and his wife, Svetlana (ph), outside an iron gate pockmarked by shelling. Alex is tall, cornstalk-thin and always cracking jokes. Svetlana says nearly everyone she knows has fled Kherson since its liberation.

SVETLANA: (Through interpreter) My friends told me, like, are you crazy? This is too dangerous. But, you know, I believe that if it's your fate to die, you will die anyway.

KAKISSIS: We follow Alex and Svetlana into a small house surrounded by fragrant lilacs. The house belongs to the wife of another special forces fighter. The two couples live together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHNITZEL FRYING)

KAKISSIS: Inside, Alex and the other fighter, who goes by his callsign, Michel (ph), fry schnitzel for lunch. They met last summer when the city of Kherson was still occupied by Russian forces.

MICHEL: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Michel says they hid for weeks on the many islands that dot Dnipro, ambushing Russian soldiers. He says his team attacked from the river while Alex struck from the woods.

MICHEL: (Through interpreter) He was known as a snake. And we were lizards or turtles, meaning we could work on both land and water.

KAKISSIS: Alex can't swim and says he feels at home in the forest. He learned to navigate forests as a child growing up in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) For me, a forest here is like a park back home. It's small. My wife and I used to go mushroom hunting all the time. They always worried that I would get lost. But it's impossible for me to lose my bearings here.

KAKISSIS: Alex has been fighting Russian forces since 2014, when Russian proxies took over parts of eastern Ukraine.

ALEX: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Over the last year in Kherson, he says he has helped locate Russian military camps and weapon stockpiles. He also admits to killing Russian soldiers and taking their weapons.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) Ammunition was also running low, so we needed it.

KAKISSIS: And the Russians, he says, do not strike him as very good soldiers.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) They would fire randomly. And if we went in and started shooting, they would kill each other. They seem to have no training.

KAKISSIS: A few miles away from Alex's home near a suburban park outside the city, we meet two more Ukrainian soldiers, Serhiy (ph) and Andriy (ph), who are part of a reconnaissance team.

SERHIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: They're both in their 40s. Serhiy is a cheery former park ranger. Like the special forces, his unit also spends a lot of time on the river islands.

SERHIY: (Through interpreter) This is the closest we can get to the enemy to see their movements with our own eyes.

KAKISSIS: But the stakeouts, he says, are very risky.

SERHIY: (Through interpreter) The shelling is constant. Attack drones are flying over our heads. There are also drones recording our location. And on the other side, there are Russian soldiers in tanks ready to strike with artillery or mortars at the slightest movement.

KAKISSIS: The other soldier, Andriy, is the battalion's deputy commander and tactician. He says launching a major military attack across a river is very complicated. And his team is trying to make it easier.

ANDRIY: (Through interpreter) We have destroyed enemy sabotage groups that try to cross the river. We have destroyed some of the enemy's equipment. We have fortified our positions along the coast.

KAKISSIS: And, he adds, his reconnaissance team has also secured positions on the other side of the river, the occupied side. Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces have been evacuating residents from the occupied side and forcing them to apply for Russian passports.

ALEX: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Alex, the special forces fighter we met earlier, sees this as a sign that the Russians are weakened. He predicts that the counteroffensive will be effective and quiet.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) Don't expect some scene out of World War II, like millions of soldiers swimming across the Dnipro River. Everything will happen like it's supposed to.

KAKISSIS: He says he's confident enough to start planning this summer's barbecues at his home across the river on the land now occupied by Russia.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kherson.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "THE SONDERSONG") 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.