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Encore: Garbage collectors in Kharkiv dodge mortars to pick up the trash

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, the bloodshed continues as Russian artillery pounds neighborhoods in the north and east. But in one small sign of normalcy, the city's garbage collectors have returned, and they're picking up the trash again. NPR's Jason Beaubien got up early to hit the streets with the crew of a city trash truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: On the northeastern edge of Kharkiv, the streets of Saltivka are empty, but the dumpsters are full.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRASH CLATTERING)

BEAUBIEN: Rows of high-rise apartment buildings in Saltivka are in ruins. Some have craters from rockets. Others are streaked black from fires. Windows are blown out. Yet some residents are returning to fix up their apartments, and some never left. Andrey Taranenko is driving a large white garbage truck through the neighborhood.

ANDREY TARANENKO: (Through interpreter) When people started to come back and they - you know, they left fridges here full of food and so on. So they started to, yeah, throw away things they didn't need. So, of course, there were a lot of garbage here.

BEAUBIEN: Because of the shelling and debris in the streets, he says garbage trucks couldn't get into some areas for weeks. Trash was piling up in the sidewalks. Everything was rotting. He says it was horrible. The Saltivka neighborhood remains in range of Russian artillery, although the shelling here now is intermittent. Taranenko and his three-man crew all have been issued bulletproof vests. The windscreen of their truck is shattered from an explosion. Even more menacing, there's a walnut-sized hole in the passenger side of the cab where a piece of shrapnel from a mortar went through the door. It lodged in the back of the cab and behind Taranenko's seat. And there's a booming of artillery here from the front line, which is only a few miles away.

TARANENKO: (Through interpreter) Yeah. Yesterday, for example, it was quite loud here. And honestly, I was quite scared because you never know when it hits the next time.

BEAUBIEN: He jokes, "the safest thing to do is to just keep moving."

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK RUMBLING)

BEAUBIEN: There are no shops or businesses open in this part of Saltivka. The power is still out. Svetlana Bobrysheva has remained here throughout the war. She says she takes cover in a basement bomb shelter when the shelling gets really bad. She says it used to be that garbage men making a racket first thing in the morning with the trash cans annoyed her. But now it's a sign that she and her neighbors haven't been forgotten.

SVETLANA BOBRYSHEVA: (Through interpreter) Thanks to the guys because they haven't forgotten about us, and they have been with us since the first days of war, and thank our mayor for remembering about us.

BEAUBIEN: She breaks into tears talking about Taranenko's crew coming to collect the trash. But keeping the trash trucks moving throughout Kharkiv over the last four months has been complicated. More than a thousand dumpsters have been destroyed. Also, the trucks are constantly getting flat tires because the streets are strewn with debris, says Oleksandr Shepitko, the foreman of the central truck depot. He says one truck's engine was destroyed when it was hit with shrapnel from a mortar, but the driver was fine.

OLEKSANDR SHEPITKO: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Laughter) He says, "Our guys have got steel balls."

(LAUGHTER)

BEAUBIEN: When Russian artillery is pounding a particular area, he says the crews stay away until things cool down. And while there has been damage to a lot of their equipment, so far, none of the trash collectors have been injured or killed. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "SIDE BY CLACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.