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Ukrainians are on alert for Russian saboteurs trying to infiltrate their towns

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And I'm Leila Fadel in Lviv, Ukraine, where a heightened sense of solidarity and suspicion is palpable, even in this safer part of the country. Ukrainian officials here in Lviv and across the country are urging citizens to watch for the enemy within, to be on the lookout for, quote, "saboteurs." In recent days, the Security Services of Ukraine, which is an agency kind of like the FBI, has released several video confessions on a messaging service and Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

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

FADEL: In one video, a man looks into the camera and takes deep breaths as he recounts spying for the Russian forces for over a decade. His arms are restrained behind his back.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

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

FADEL: "I admit my guilt," he says. "I apologize to the Ukrainian people."

The parliament is quickly moving to intensify punishment for alleged treason and sabotage. It could carry a sentence of up to life, and the state will seize property. The videos serve not only as a warning but also as reassurance.

(CROSSTALK)

FADEL: And neighborhoods are taking it upon themselves to set up checkpoints to search for what they see as suspicious people. In the first days of the war, they did this on their own, and now they're working with local authorities.

At a traffic circle on the outskirts of Lviv, men are filling sandbags, and fires burn in two empty oil drums to keep people warm.

(CROSSTALK)

FADEL: Ivan Kondiukh is leading the effort. He agrees to talk, but he says no pictures. He wears a camouflage jacket. A walkie-talkie hangs from his coat.

And how did you end up building a checkpoint here? Is this part of the territorial defense? Or is it just neighborhood guys?

IVAN KONDIUKH: (Through interpreter) I'm just a regular citizen here. I live not far away. And this is my neighbor. And we started it from the very beginning. From the first day, we were just regulating the traffic with our own hands. And then when there were more people, they have chosen us since - they said, since you started this, be the leader.

FADEL: In normal times, Kondiukh is a welder, a construction worker. He also makes sausages. Now he's the eyes and ears of his district.

I'm assuming that you also stop and talk to people and check people. What are you looking for? What are you watching for? What are you worried about?

KONDIUKH: (Through interpreter) So we are trying not to let guns inside of the city and not to let saboteurs to - inside this area, where they can kill our families.

FADEL: Yeah. How do you find the saboteur? Like, what do you look for?

KONDIUKH: (Through interpreter) Car plates, nationality, the way they speak and their behavior.

FADEL: Like, what behavior? I'm just interested. I'm just interested because everybody I've talked to has been very concerned about saboteurs. So I'm just interested in, like, what you're looking for. But aren't there - what if there's somebody who lives here who is a citizen?

KONDIUKH: (Through interpreter) Yes, because even people who are living here - they are - sell themselves for money and can turn into saboteurs.

FADEL: Oh, really?

KONDIUKH: (Through interpreter) That's why we're checking everything. For example, if the car is coming from different region, for example, from Donetsk or Lugansk region, and they're sitting - three men with the beard, et cetera, we need to be suspicious about that. And we're checking.

FADEL: Yeah. So have you found saboteurs? Have you found guns? I mean, you don't have to tell us specifics.

ZHENIA AFANASIEV: He said, "We found someone, but I'm not going to say who is that."

FADEL: Oh, interesting.

All Kondiukh will say is the man was in the neighborhood, marking a building. Ukrainian officials have warned that Russian collaborators are marking targets for future Russian bombardment. As we speak, a crane adds concrete slabs to reinforce the barricades. This is a scene playing out around the city and across the country. This road - it's key, they say. In one direction, it leads to Kyiv, where Russian forces are shelling the city, and in the other to the safety of Poland.

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

FADEL: Oksana Huk-Skrynkovska and Janna Cherkoon (ph) are standing in a makeshift tent, passing out...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Java, chai, cappuccino...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) Everybody's bringing something. For example, they prepared some salad. They brought it here. Some restaurants are bringing food. Everybody wants to help - even butter if they have it.

FADEL: This is a country that has had a history of war with Russia. When is it over? When is it over?

AFANASIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) We think very soon. We will not let them to make us slaves. There is no worse than Putin.

FADEL: For now, they're vigilant. But when this is over...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) So we have this trust that we will win, and then we will put long table on this road, and we will be drinking.

FADEL: She flicks her neck, the Ukrainian gesture to invite someone for a drink. And as we say goodbye, a man stuffs an apple in one of my pockets, and a woman slips a heart-shaped cookie in the other. Amid the heightened vigilance, there is also heightened generosity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) Glory to Ukraine. And glory to God. God is with us.

FADEL: Some Ukrainians we've talked to who say they know their government probably isn't being fully straight with them. Maybe Russian losses are exaggerated, maybe their own underestimated. The news is filled with patriotic videos of Ukrainian victories, burning Russian tanks and prisoners of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: And it's not uncommon to hear obscenities on the news hurled at the Russians. Under martial law, censorship is also permissible. Ukrainians say it's needed for morale as Russia attacks. In times of war, they say, civil liberties must take a backseat to sovereignty and safety.

This historic city is now filled with new billboards and banners hyping up the war effort, praising the Ukrainian army and cursing the Russians. And the only music that we hear in the city center is patriotic music.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: A song floats out of an elegant restaurant and into the cobblestone-paved square.

AFANASIEV: Yes, this is very famous song of a very famous singer of band called Okean Elzy, and he's from Lviv.

FADEL: Our interpreter, Zhenia Afanasiev (ph).

AFANASIEV: So basically, he's saying, mother, who did we pray for? How many more children this war will take? Your children, not your war.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language spoken).

FADEL: The song was written about Russia's war on Ukraine eight years ago. And now it plays again in this new one.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "BEARDS OF THE PATRIARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.