AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
For the first time since Russia invaded five months ago, Ukraine is loading grain, cooking oil and other goods onto ships in the Black Sea this weekend. These ships are ready to leave at any moment. Ukraine says it's only waiting for the United Nations, which helped broker a wartime deal to export Ukrainian food, to give the OK. NPR's Joanna Kakissis spent some time near those Black Sea ports and sent us this report.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Vyechislav Nevmerzhytskiy (ph) walks through rows of sunflowers on his land, not far from the port of Pivdennyi, one of three Ukrainian ports now opening to export food.
VYECHISLAV NEVMERZHYTSKIY: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: Nevmerzhytskiy is middle-aged with a buzzcut and a smile as cheerful as his sunflowers. He usually sells seeds to be pressed into cooking oil. He's also got lots of grain in storage.
NEVMERZHYTSKIY: (Through interpreter) We haven't sold anything this year for obvious reasons. We can't pay the rent on our land. I've been giving some of my grain away to small farms.
KAKISSIS: He says he was thrilled when the United Nations and Turkey made a deal on July 22 with Ukraine and Russia to reopen ports. But he predicts these wartime exports by sea won't last long for Ukraine.
NEVMERZHYTSKIY: (Through interpreter) Ships are easy targets for the Russians. And I can see them attacking these commercial vessels and then blaming us. The only way this will work is if NATO guards the ports.
KAKISSIS: Since the deal was signed, Russia has hit the port of Odesa and a nearby coastal town with missiles, rattling everyone.
DMYTRO BARINOV: Of course it's about the trust, but Russia is Russia.
KAKISSIS: Dmytro Barinov is deputy head of Ukraine's seaport authority.
BARINOV: We continue to work. We continue to prepare the ports that - to resume the cargo operation as soon as possible. Like port authority, we prepare everything to resume the export.
KAKISSIS: We meet in a park in Odesa, a historic city that includes Ukraine's biggest port. Barinov says about 68 foreign-flagged vessels have been stuck at Black Sea ports since the Russian invasion. Roughly half are loaded with Ukrainian grain.
BARINOV: Some of them continue to load because they're waiting when these corridors start to work and they can go out.
KAKISSIS: Barinov says the port has created new evacuation plans and early warnings against strikes. The military, meanwhile, is using specialists to remove undersea mines around those shipping corridors.
Ukraine is one of the world's main suppliers of grain, and many countries need it to fight food shortages and hunger. Alla Stoyanova, the Odesa region's agriculture chief, explains that farming is also crucial to Ukraine.
ALLA STOYANOVA: (Through interpreter) Ukraine used to earn 45% of its general income from the agricultural sector. Since the Russian invasion, practically every other sector has crumbled. So agricultural exports are our money, our economy and our life.
KAKISSIS: She adds, "I promise you that every ship loaded with grain will be leaving our ports as planned."
The port of Chornomorsk in the Odesa region is where the first export ships are expected to depart. TV crews filmed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and an international delegation watching as grain was loaded onto a ship.
NATALIA SERUCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: Natalia Seruchenko (ph), who runs the local news site in Chornomorsk, wore Ukraine's national colors, blue and yellow, to mark the day.
SERUCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: "Ukrainians always hope for the best," she says. "But we're also aware of every air raid alarm, every bomb shelter, everything that can go wrong."
Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Odesa.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROB BURGER'S "DIMINISHED CAPACITY")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.