People are picking up the pieces around Kharkiv after liberation by Ukrainian forces Ukrainian troops are pushing Russian forces away from the country's second-largest city. That's allowing residents to move out of shelters, assess damage and try to resume something of a normal life.

People are picking up the pieces around Kharkiv after liberation by Ukrainian forces

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Speaking to reporters via video, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Ukraine has the upper hand in its fight against Russia.


JENS STOLTENBERG: Ukraine can win this war. Ukrainians are bravely defending their homeland.

MARTINEZ: These comments come as the Ukrainian military is making advances in the northeast part of the country around the city of Kharkiv. Those areas are finally being liberated after being occupied by Russian soldiers for weeks. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the village of Malaya Rohan on the eastern edge of Kharkiv, Shapoval Sergei (ph) is cleaning up. His house is a mess, caused by bomb blasts, shrapnel and Russian troops who camped in his living room.

SHAPOVAL SERGEI: (Through interpreter) Everything is ripped. Everything is destroyed. You can see ceiling is burnt out.

BEAUBIEN: Sergei, who's 49, says he spent half his life working hard - maybe, he adds, too hard - to build this house.

SERGEI: (Through interpreter) Bullet holes here.

BEAUBIEN: He never thought the Russians were actually going to attack Ukraine. And then two days after the invasion, he had to flee to a basement in his aunt's house. Soon, the power went out. For weeks, Sergei and his family lived without lights or heat, he says, eating canned vegetables residents had stored in their cellars. He says the Russians were like beasts. They shot at people who tried to flee. He says one soldier raped a young girl. We can't confirm these allegations. But for Sergei, the Russian occupation of his village and his house fundamentally changed his vision of Russia.

SERGEI: (Through interpreter) I have a family in Russia right now. And here, all my life, I was speaking Russian. Now I feel disgust to speak Russian anymore. I will do whatever I need, but I don't want to speak this language anymore. And I don't want to know about them.

BEAUBIEN: This part of Ukraine is heavily Russian-speaking. Downtown Kharkiv is just 30 miles from the Russian border. But for Sergei, the invasion, he says, permanently shifted his focus to the West.

SERGEI: (Through interpreter) It's only at this stage I realize that we lived in a European village. We had European roads. We had European TVs. We had European community here. Now we have, simply, nothing.

BEAUBIEN: In the very first days of the invasion, Russia launched an offensive to encircle Kharkiv. Fierce battles broke out, particularly in the northern suburbs. Hundreds of thousands of people fled. Up until last week, Russian ground troops continued to fire shells into residential neighborhoods on the periphery of Kharkiv. An offensive by Ukrainian troops that started weeks ago has now pushed the Russian lines back to the point where their artillery can no longer strike the city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: But for Malaya Rohan, the damage has already been done. At a cultural center in the middle of the village, volunteers are distributing hot soup and cabbage salad. One of the organizers of the lunch, Larisa Skorkina (ph), says the problems facing the village are massive.

LARISA SKORKINA: (Through interpreter) Pretty much every house got some level of destruction - some shrapnel, some damages to the roof, to the land, even to the courtyard. So we need to rebuild the whole city, the whole village.

BEAUBIEN: The power is still out. Parts of the village remain mined. Other parts are flattened. I asked what residents need in the short term, Skorkina says that besides food, everyone seems to have run out of matches, because they're still cooking over open fires, and powdered laundry detergent as they try to clean up. As Russian forces retreat further to the east, scenes like this are unfolding in villages and towns throughout the region. Ukrainian military officials, however, say Russian troops continue to hold key supply lines east of Kharkiv and are blocking Ukrainian efforts to advance all the way to the border.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kharkiv.

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