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Some Ukrainians forced from their homes are fleeing to small towns for refuge


The U.N. says about one-quarter of Ukraine's 44 million people have left their homes because of the war. While many have fled for neighboring countries, some 6 1/2 million people have stayed within Ukraine's borders. These refugees are overwhelming cities and are now streaming into smaller towns and cities which have even less ability to take them in. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report from western Ukraine.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: While the ground combat and Russian shelling is centered in eastern cities, including the capital Kyiv, few places in Ukraine feel truly out of harm's way. Russian missiles have also struck military bases, ammunition depots, airports and communications towers in cities across the country. But Father Serhii Tryfiak, with the Catholic charity Caritas, says the usually sleepy cities like Kolomyia can seem just a little better.

SERHII TRYFIAK: (Through interpreter) Not all of the displaced people can settle in big cities. Those places are already overwhelmed, and people come here because they don't want to hear the sounds of war - the sirens and the explosions. And Kolomyia has only been hit once so far - the airport - so people feel a little safer here.

WESTERVELT: Kolomyia, near the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, is not as sleepy anymore. Father Tryfiak is pulling long days with little sleep, leading efforts to help support some 40,000 Ukrainians who've temporarily settled here. He shows me around rooms in a warehouse stocked with donated food, medicine, baby items and clothes.

TRYFIAK: (Through interpreter) My family's here. This is our country. It's not easy for us, but we believe we will win this war. We have to do our job to help those displaced who are in the most difficult situation who came here.

WESTERVELT: Suddenly, a low-flying MiG-29 streaks by.

TRYFIAK: (Speaking Ukrainian).


WESTERVELT: There goes a Ukrainian fighter jet overhead. One hopes it's Ukraine.

TRYFIAK: (Laughter, speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERVELT: We get a lot of those, he chuckles. There's a base not far away.


WESTERVELT: Natalia Blinova is among those 40,000 who've chosen to come here. She pushes her 8-month-old son asleep in a stroller down the gravel driveway after visiting the Caritas charity center. Blinova and her 12-year-old daughter hold bags full of food, some clothes and a blanket. They fled Kharkiv after Russian shelling hit near their home, smashing windows and fraying nerves.

NATALIA BLINOVA: (Through interpreter) We saw that we would wait in our house, that we will wait until it's over, but we couldn't stand it anymore because it's getting worse and worse every day, and we knew that we were responsible for our kids.

WESTERVELT: They're now staying temporarily in a free apartment a local family has offered.

BLINOVA: (Through interpreter) We couldn't find a place to live in Ivano Frankivsk, so we decided to come to a smaller city, a place where our kids can socialize and maybe find some quiet.

WESTERVELT: Downtown at an old Soviet-era cultural center, hundreds of local volunteers are busily making camouflage netting, food packs and military clothes - all useful for soldiers at the frontlines. And Nadia Korilenko and about 20 others are in a spacious second-floor room rolling cigarettes, also apparently useful for soldiers at the front. Small mountains of tobacco spill across the tables. Teams use handheld rolling machines to press tobacco into paper and filters. Korilenko and her family also fled shelling in Kharkiv. Her husband, brother and nephew, she says, are all now in the eastern combat zones.

NADIA KORILENKO: (Through interpreter) I do everything I can to supply them with all the necessary stuff that they need in the frontline. That's our land. And the only thing I can do - I have to believe in them.

WESTERVELT: In the cardboard boxes of newly-rolled cigarettes heading to the front, the government has inserted a bold-lettered note to soldiers. Warriors, the note reads, the Muscovite came to kill you, to seize your land, to make your relatives slaves. Kill the Muscovite. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, near Kolomyia, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.