On the ground in Ukraine: mass exodus, armored helicopters, bomb shelters

Fighting intensified in Ukraine today as Russian forces closed in on the capital city of Kyiv and other regions. Neighboring nation Moldova has declared a state of emergency as tens of thousands of refugees pour into the country; others have chosen to stay in Ukraine and fight. For an on-the-ground perspective NPR Correspondent Frank Langfitt joins us from western Ukraine.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt is in Ukraine covering the Russian invasion. He joined us from western Ukraine — after night fell — for more on the situation there. Frank, we've seen images of you sitting in a bomb shelter, doing your reporting. Where are you standing now?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    We're in western Ukraine, and what you're seeing is a mass exodus really from the country because of all the fighting in the East, and already the estimates are over 120,000 people have already fled the country, and the estimates even before the war began was this could be a refugee crisis of a million to a million and a half. Moldova has just declared a national emergency. They have 26,000 people. And so very sadly, I think you're just going to see more and more of this as the fighting increases. And keep in mind, the 190,000 thousand troops we've been talking about on the borders of Ukraine, the Russian troops, only half of them have been deployed so far. So we expect there will be other attacks from other directions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the people in Kyiv that you were reporting around people who are deciding to sleep in subway stations and bomb shelters and basements?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    I think that it's been terrifying for many of them. You know, when you and I last talked, which is just a week ago, I was downtown in Kyiv and it was a lovely evening and people were out at restaurants and now it's a war zone. I talked to one parliamentarian and I said, How are things in your neighborhood? And she said I just had armored helicopters fly past my window. There's another woman we know who spent the entire night in a bomb shelter, but she doesn't want to leave because her mother's there and her mother doesn't want to leave. And this is a story that we're hearing all across the country now. Last night, as we were in central Ukraine, we spent probably three or four times in a bomb shelter after we heard the air raid sirens with local people, the ones who hadn't fled yet.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Frank, what's factoring into people's decisions to stay or leave?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Well, I think many families are deciding to get out because they, now that they realize there is absolutely an invasion here, the fear is it could be an absolute full scale invasion, and they're just really afraid for their safety. But what you're also seeing is men coming and volunteering to fight with the Territorial Defense Forces. So we've seen as we've been driving hundreds of miles across the country, we've seen people showing up at community centers and being divided into unions and going off to get their weapons to go back to Kyiv and fight at the front. And that's been a sort of an extraordinary thing to see, but you're seeing it in villages really all across the country here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Frank, what's the information flow, how are people staying connected? Is the internet working, are radio stations broadcasting information? How do people stay aware of what's happening?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    It's been extraordinary, Hari. I thought that communications and electricity would go out at the beginning of the attack. It has not happened. We've actually done all of our conversations on NPR using my iPhone and a little bit of technology, but not very much. Everybody is on the internet. For the most part, it does come and go, but people are communicating. Many people in Kyiv are letting people know what's happening by posting lots of videos and showing how apartment blocks are being hit and the damage that's being done already to some civilian areas.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    [ NPR's Frank Langfitt joining us from western Ukraine, thanks so much.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Good to talk, Hari.

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