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Ukrainians work to protect historic monuments from Russian bombs

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia continued to expand its attack on Ukraine today. Air raid sirens rang out in the past few hours across almost all of the country. There has been fierce fighting in the suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, and heavy Russian bombardment continues to rain down on cities in southern and eastern Ukraine. The port city of Mariupol has been under Russian siege for several days now and was the scene of more terror today. Some time ago, Ukrainian authorities said more than 80 people, including children, were trapped in a mosque there as Russian shelling continued nearby. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in western Ukraine, and she is with us now to tell us more. Lauren, thanks so much for being here.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First, could you just tell us, what is the latest in Mariupol, which is in the south?

FRAYER: The situation is incredibly dire there. The city doesn't have gas, electricity. It's running low on food. Every day, civilians try to get out of Mariupol through these humanitarian corridors, and nearly every day, Ukrainian officials accused Russia of violating the rules and firing on evacuees. You mentioned that mosque in Mariupol, where civilians are sheltering. Well, the International Red Cross also said today that 65 people are sheltering in their Mariupol office, too. The people there are trying to get water, and the agency says people are coming into their office and saying they no longer have any food for their children.

MARTIN: What about Kyiv? We were hearing for days about a Russian convoy that was stalled on its way to the Ukrainian capital. Can you tell us the latest on that?

FRAYER: Yes. That convoy is fanned out now, and it looks like those Russian forces are aiming artillery directly at the capital now. There was fierce fighting today northwest of the city. We're getting to the point where many Ukrainian cities are being flattened. There's a huge humanitarian crisis. There's also concern for Ukraine's history - its churches, its monuments, all being destroyed by war. I met up with officials in Lviv in western Ukraine, where I am, who've launched this special operation to try to protect their heritage monuments. Take a listen.

Standing in a cobblestone square in central Lviv, Lilia Onyshchenko is bracing herself against the cold, scrolling through bad news on her phone and cursing Vladimir Putin.

LILIA ONYSHCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: A 19th-century wooden church flattened, she says. A folk museum shelled. A library with rare books destroyed. On top of the human losses across Ukraine, this really makes Onyshchenko angry.

ONYSHCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: I've devoted my life to protecting these monuments, she says. Onyshchenko is the head of historical preservation in Lviv. It's the biggest city in western Ukraine. Its old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Parts of it date back to the 5th century. There's a stunning church on almost every street, architecture from the medieval and renaissance periods. Onyshchenko takes me on a tour of what she's doing to save all of this. We pass through an Armenian church.

Oh, wow. Smells like incense. Massive golden ceiling here.

And into a courtyard where workers in coveralls are putting up scaffolding around a giant baroque altarpiece.

OLEKSANDR RUCHKO: Jesus - he's moved for the moment. Jesus was there.

FRAYER: Jesus has left.

RUCHKO: Yeah. Jesus has left because he's made with wood.

FRAYER: Wooden Jesus has moved for the moment, says Oleksandr Ruchko, who was a tour guide in Lviv. Now he's helping disassemble and stash away all the artifacts he used to tell tourists about. Jesus statues across the city have been taken down from their crosses, paintings removed from museum walls, hidden in secret locations underground for safekeeping. Vitaliy Kulyk is another tourist official who's been walking the streets, taking stock of metal statues in city squares, Neptune with his trident, the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko with his arm raised. Kulyk is trying to figure out what Russian bombs could do to them.

VITALIY KULYK: So usually, the bombs are making the high temperature, and that burns everything around.

FRAYER: So you're worried that these could melt.

KULYK: Yeah. Yeah.

FRAYER: Kulyk's team went to the local equivalent of Home Depot, bought fireproof material and wrapped up the statues right there on their pedestals, hundreds of them. At the city's Roman Catholic cathedral, a crane lifts workers up to soaring stained glass windows to cover them with plywood and aluminum. These are areas that survived occupation by the Nazis and the Soviets. The frontlines in World War II moved back and forth across Lviv. Kulyk the tourism official hopes that that won't be the case in this war.

KULYK: Our army is doing very well, so I think that the Russians won't get here.

FRAYER: You don't entertain the possibility?

KULYK: Like, we have the Ukrainian idiom, expect better, but be prepared for the worst.

FRAYER: Preparing for the worst is what the city of Lviv is doing, he says.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer is still here with us from Lviv. Lauren, is there any suggestion that cultural sites around Ukraine are being specifically targeted?

FRAYER: There is. Onyshchenko certainly thinks so. Lots of Ukrainians see this war as an effort by Vladimir Putin to erase their culture, their identity, subsume them into Russia. Putin has said Ukraine is not a real country, according to him, that it doesn't have a real culture of its own. Lots of Ukrainians think he's trying to make that a reality through war. And in one of the videos released today online, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine said that Russians would basically need to carpet-bomb Kyiv in order to take it. And he said, quote, "if that is their goal, let them come."

MARTIN: That was NPR's Lauren Frayer in Lviv in western Ukraine. Lauren, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your work and that of your team.

FRAYER: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEODORE BIKEL'S "HEJ PADA PADA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.