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Blinken ventured out of Ukraine's capital to see how people are trying to rebuild

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent two days in Ukraine this week announcing more aid and long-term support. He ventured out of the capital yesterday to see how Ukrainians are trying to rebuild. NPR's Michele Kelemen brings us this story.

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VALERIY POLHUI: (Through interpreter) Everything started on March 3, 2022.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A couple of hours from Kyiv in a small town called Yahidne, a man who was held hostage in a basement for a month tells a harrowing tale. There were over 100 villagers crammed in a school storage room. And Valeriy Polhui says he pleaded with the Russian guards for fresh air.

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POLHUI: (Through interpreter) And we're telling you a person is going to die right now, very soon. And they say, OK, let him or her die.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken looked somber as he spoke outside the run-down schoolhouse.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: And this is just one building in one village in one community in Ukraine. And this is a story that we've seen again and again and again.

KELEMEN: The hostage ordeal in Yahidne was at the start of the war. The Russians continue to launch attacks on civilians, striking a market just this week.

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BLINKEN: A market for what? This is what Ukrainians are living with every day. This is what is happening here every day.

KELEMEN: As the war drags on, some in Washington have been raising concerns about the price tag of U.S. support, so part of Blinken's mission was to try to put a human face on the conflict. He met with border guards, and he visited with workers clearing mines and unexploded munitions left behind by Russian troops.

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BLINKEN: We really admire what you're doing.

KELEMEN: What they're doing is trying to clear a field that was filled with Russian artillery shells on a farm that once employed over 300 people and produced corn for export. Secretary Blinken says it's vital to get farms like this back in business.

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BLINKEN: So the work you're doing is saving lives in Ukraine. It's saving livelihoods in Ukraine, and it's helping once again to feed the world.

KELEMEN: He announced another $90 million in support for demining, part of a new billion-dollar aid package for Ukraine. Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, is counting on that continued support. He remembers calling Blinken last year, asking him to encourage American businesses to reopen, starting with McDonald's.

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DMYTRO KULEBA: Having McDonald's in the country is a message, is a message of confidence, is a message of trust.

KELEMEN: Kuleba brought the secretary to check it out, ordering cherry pie while Blinken munched on a few French fries. It was a brief, light moment in a country at war. U.S. officials say they think Ukraine is making progress on the battlefield, but it is a tough slog. And Blinken's trip was bookmarked with air raid sirens right before he arrived and after his train left Kyiv.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.