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A college student in occupied Ukraine says buying food means it's a lucky day

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The city of Kherson in southern Ukraine was the first major Ukrainian city to be occupied by Russia since the invasion began. And today the Russian Defense Ministry said its troops have taken full control over that entire region.

NPR's Daniel Estrin and Kat Lonsdorf have been keeping in touch with Vitaliy. He's a 22-year-old college student, and we're not going to use his last name for his safety. They met him in Kherson two weeks before the invasion. He's been sending voice memos every day. Here's Kat with more.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: We reached out to Vitaliy right after we heard his city had fallen to the Russians. That was March 3. How are you, we asked.

VITALIY: Not good. I mean, we are told the Russians are setting landmines in Kherson. This is just insane. What the hell are they doing?

LONSDORF: Vitaliy couldn't verify the information about landmines. He saw it on TV. But this is his life now - lots of rumors. The next day...

VITALIY: And today, Russians were blocking the internet and just any sort of connection at all. And I only got back my Vodafone connection, which is my cellphone network. And still, I have no Wi-Fi, so still waiting for them to turn it back on.

LONSDORF: And he tells us there's a problem with food.

VITALIY: I am running out of it. There's really not enough food right now in Kherson. This is a very critical situation. I still have some, like, macaroni, spaghetti, but I don't have any meat. And this is bad.

LONSDORF: A few days after the occupation, people in Kherson start taking to the streets. Vitaliy sends a video.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

VITALIY: Today we had a protest. I went there, and there were, like, a lot of people there. There were, like, nearly maybe 5,000 people, I think. Also, today was kind of a lucky day because I happened to buy food. Like, I bought cheese, meat and fish - you know, never thought that I'd be so happy of, like, buying food, you know, never in my life. But it just really made my day today.

LONSDORF: He says occasionally Russian soldiers will hand out food, but people don't trust it. And Vitaliy won't take it.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

LONSDORF: The protests keep happening, and Vitaliy keeps going.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

VITALIY: As you can hear, people are screaming, fascist, as - you know, as the Russians are. I only leaving my home just to go to protest and, well, buy some groceries. And then that's it. I just sit at home all day.

LONSDORF: He watches news and doom-scrolls all day every day. He sent a video from Kherson from one of those protests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: It's a Ukrainian man climbing on top of a Russian tank.

VITALIY: And he put, like, a Ukrainian flag on it. And then he disappeared. I think he was kidnapped, and I don't know what happened to him.

LONSDORF: Last week Ukraine's Commissioner for Human Rights put out a statement saying that 400 Ukrainian citizens have already been illegally arrested. Several independent journalists in Kherson have gone missing, too.

VITALIY: So I think I'm, like, really scared to go to protests. But anyway, I think I'd go because I don't really see any other way. This is, like, the least that I can do.

LONSDORF: And there's still active shelling, of course. But Vitaliy is wondering, how will this end? Will Kherson remain in Russian hands forever?

VITALIY: In the worst-case scenario that - if this occupation will remain after the war, if Kherson will be Russia, then, of course, I'll have to move out because there's no way that I'm living in Russia.

LONSDORF: Throughout all of this, Vitaliy almost always starts his messages the same way.

VITALIY: I am all right.

I'm doing all right.

Yeah, I am all right.

LONSDORF: We comment that he always seems so calm when so much is uncertain around him, and he texts back, I try to be calm, but it's not easy.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND TRIBE SECTOR 9'S "TOKYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.