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A family in Kharkiv refuses to leave, even as the Russians shell their city


Millions have fled the war in Ukraine and left the country. But some refuse to leave, despite shelling and the threat of a broader Russian invasion. NPR's Eyder Peralta takes us to the home of one family in Kharkiv, whose fight to simply stay alive has become their biggest act of resistance.

IRINA SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: One of the rooms of the apartment has been converted into a solarium. Before the war, plants climbed up to the ceiling, but the shockwaves of the shells and the missiles were too strong for their grip. They were ripped from the walls. Still, Irina Sudovtseva tends to them - she cuts them back. She waters them patiently. White roses peek out from behind bright-pink geraniums. Her pride and joy, though, is a pink bougainvillea. I tell her they're everywhere in Kenya, where I used to live.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Through interpreter) This one is really small, comparing to the huge Kenyan one, but still we're proud. It's our Ukrainian one, small one.

(Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: A tropical flower growing in Ukraine. She seems to get a thrill out of keeping something alive in a place where it shouldn't be.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian). (Laughter).

PERALTA: Hi. How are you?

SUDOVTSEVA: (Laughter).

LARISA: (Inaudible).

PERALTA: She walks out of the solarium into a back room where Larisa (ph), her 92-year-old mother, is reading an e-book - big print, but she still uses a magnifying lens.

The decision to stay in Kharkiv is grave. More than 700 civilians have been killed, and the fighting sometimes spills into the city. Buildings a few blocks from here have been blown up by rockets and missiles. Irina moves to the living room, surrounded by portraits, academic diplomas and pictures of the beautiful places she's gone sailing.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian).


PERALTA: Is this what you hear all night?

SUDOVTSEVA: (Through interpreter) Pretty much all night. And also not only see - but we can have ability to see it.

(Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: So it's like New Year's every day.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: They've been living like this since 2014, she says. When Russia annexed Crimea, friends of theirs were displaced. Others were killed. She says it's a repetition of history. Through centuries, the Russian empire has claimed these lands.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Through interpreter) We knew that they going to come back. We knew that the Russians going to come back here eventually. If we have a choice between being fully taken, or we have a choice that we know they are coming to destroy us, you simply can't be afraid forever. There is no preparation that can get you ready that a bomb goes into your house. But you simply can't be afraid forever.

PERALTA: When this war started, Irina bought enough birdseed to last her months. She made a decision that she would keep tending to her plants and the neighborhood plants so they would bloom. So when this war ends and people come back, they'll still have some beauty.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Through interpreter) Our enemy probably thinks - and they want us to go into some deepest, deepest holes in this city and just be terrified. But they are mistaken. They are misunderstood. We are different kind of people. We are different breed.

PERALTA: When this war started, Irina talked to her husband and mom. Her mom had survived two strokes and a spinal injury, so they decided that she was too frail to get her out of this fifth-floor apartment. Instead, they decided they would stay and face the Russians if they had to.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: The next day, as a barrage of Grad missiles takes off in the distance, Irina's husband, Alexander Vdovichenko, takes a moment to teach her how to shoot a new rifle they got for this war. He's a policeman, so he could get drafted, and Irina might have to defend her home.



PERALTA: She takes one practice shot. She's 56, barely 5 feet tall. The rifle is almost her size. Alexander tells her, don't be deliberate. Shoot once and keep shooting.

VDOVICHENKO: (Speaking Russian).

SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian).


PERALTA: Irina gives him a look of, I know this and takes off to see her mom, who is finishing her soup. One of the hardest things about this situation is that Larisa always stays in this room. Irina has made it beautiful with flowers and plants reaching toward the windows, with elaborate tapestries on the walls. But at night, when the shelling gets bad, they have decided that Irina and her husband sleep in the basement, and Larisa sleeps in this room.

LARISA: (Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: A missile strike doesn't worry her, she says. She's lived a long, happy life. But in the morning, when she's waiting for her daughter to return, her mind reels.

LARISA: (Through interpreter) So every time they leave, I ask, for how long? And if they don't come back to me, I wait for another 30 minutes. If they're not here after another 30 minutes, I start thinking that something bad has happened. And I think, just let it be. Let me die.

PERALTA: Irina tells her, I always come back. She reminds her mother that they had agreed to stay and to fight. But her mom says no one expected the war to build so fast, to be so violent. She looks sad.

LARISA: (Through interpreter) I've had a long life. It was a good life. But now I feel that by being alive, I'm taking life away from you.

PERALTA: Irina stops her before she finishes. She caresses her hand. Then she leaves her mom with her books. Larisa has been reading science fiction, which at the moment, she says, doesn't feel very strange. Irina returns to her bougainvilleas, to her birds, to her rifle. She says she wishes that these weren't the choices in front of them. She says she doesn't want anyone to think that they're making them because they're brave.

SUDOVTSEVA: (Speaking Russian).

PERALTA: "I can't say that we're heroes," she says. "We're just simply trying to live."

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.