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The latest on Ukraine's 'gate to Eastern Europe,' from a former Odessa port official

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to the southern region of Ukraine. On Thursday, Russian troops began attacking the port city of Odessa, as well as other cities throughout the country. A strike on a military base on Snake Island off the coast killed 13 Ukrainian border guards who refused to surrender to a Russian warship.

To talk more about this and hear more firsthand accounts of what's taking place, we called Yulia Marushevska. She is an activist and a former head of customs at the port in Odessa, and she's with us now on the road in Ukraine. Yulia, thank you so much for talking with us.

YULIA MARUSHEVSKA: Thank you for covering this important topic.

MARTIN: So first, I'd like to know whatever you feel comfortable telling us about where you are and what the past week has been like for you.

MARUSHEVSKA: The past week was a major change in my life. It's just - it was. like, on one hand, like a hell, but on the other hand, it is a change in the whole nation. And I feel like a part of a big change and feel united with everyone. So it was a crazy, crazy week.

MARTIN: So what have you been doing? Have you been moving around from place to place? How - what have you been up to?

MARUSHEVSKA: So when shelling started, I was in Kyiv. At 5:00 p.m., when I heard shellings, I woke up. No one expected that. They were coming one after another. We were just shocked. The rest of the day I spent in Kyiv looking for the closest bombshell, and the night - that was my first night in my life that I spent in a bombshell with my parents and my family. And then one of the Russian drones, it was destroyed by Ukrainian army. It - and it actually fall on the building just a few blocks from the bombshell where me, with my family, was sitting. So the next day, we just - we understood that we have to hit the road. And next two days, I was moving from one city to another in a huge line of cars. And currently, I'm on the western part of Ukraine in a safe place and trying to gather all my family together.

MARTIN: Thank you for sharing that. So tell us more, if you would, about Odessa and the port there. As we were saying, you were the chief of Odessa customs from 2015 to 2016.

MARUSHEVSKA: Yes.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little bit more about what's the significance of the port in this conflict?

MARUSHEVSKA: So Odessa Seaport is - we called it gate to Eastern Europe. It's a chain of ports, actually. It's not only one port, but it's a chain of ports on the south of Ukraine, which was a major economic entrance for goods and also for transporting grains and oils and sunflower oil from Ukraine. So we were exporting a lot of food, and a lot of countries were dependent on that. And now all of that, of course, is blocked.

MARTIN: So speaking of the fact that there was a military base, there is a military base on Snake Island, have you heard any more about the attack on the military base on Snake Island? What can you share about that?

MARUSHEVSKA: That's just an act of heroism. It's a small island with almost nothing there, and these Ukrainian officers were just defending it to the end. So we don't know any exact information how their life ended because the last message that we got was from this brave officer who said, like - I wouldn't repeat it on public radio, but he just sent the Russian troops far away in a square language.

MARTIN: He let it be known that they would not yield. So...

MARUSHEVSKA: Yes. Yes. Yes. That was incredible. Like, they were attacked by much stronger army military ship, but they were staying on this small island, and they never gave it up. So for us, it will be like they will be our heroes for hundreds of years ahead.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I understand that you're on the road now. But what is your goal for your family right now? Are you trying to gather someplace in country? Are you trying...

MARUSHEVSKA: Yes. We...

MARTIN: ...To come across the border? What are you trying to do?

MARUSHEVSKA: Yes. No, no, no, we are trying to gather in one small western city all together and just, like, get to rest from the road for a day or two. And then we will decide our next steps. We are not planning to cross the border. We hope to come back to Kyiv. Someone like - maybe my brothers will come back faster because they want to join self-defense units. And I have small niece, and, like, women, they will stay here for a week or two. I hope, I pray that it won't take us longer to get our city back.

MARTIN: That was Yulia Marushevska, a Ukrainian activist. She's the former head of customs in Odessa. Yulia Marushevska, thank you so much for speaking with us. Our very best to you and to your family.

MARUSHEVSKA: Thank you for covering. All the best. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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