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This Ukrainian grandmother is rebelling against the wartime beach ban

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ukraine's beaches on the Black Sea make up another frontline in the war with Russia. Police patrol the sandy shores, and signs warn of danger ahead. But this summer, swimmers couldn't stay away. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from the port city of Odesa.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Yulia Knyzhko has a perfect view of the beach from the seafood restaurant where she works. In August, this beach is usually so crowded, you can barely see the sand. This summer, of course, is different. On the day I visited the restaurant...

YULIA KNYZHKO: It's no one there but elderly woman, and she was sitting right there on this rock. Police came and said that you need to leave because it's too dangerous.

KAKISSIS: Knyzhko points to a sign with a skull and crossbones that reads danger - mines.

KNYZHKO: This woman said that she's a mermaid, and she don't want to leave. She scream it, like, really loud. And some people - yes, yes, yes. Some people was shocked.

KAKISSIS: The mermaid has short white hair and is wearing a flowered bikini. She's floating on her back, looking blissfully up at the sun and totally ignoring the police. She's got the biggest smile on her face. Oh, my God.

Hi.

HALYNA DRUZ: Hi.

KAKISSIS: She wades out of the water to introduce herself.

DRUZ: (Through interpreter) My name is Halyna Druz, and I'm not a criminal. I have been swimming here for the last 40 years, and that's why I've lived to be 90 years old.

KAKISSIS: Something about Halyna Druz's rebellion seems to embolden those watching her. A woman in full makeup peels off her caftan and jumps in, wearing only her undergarments. Sunbathers run onto the beach from an empty hotel nearby. Retired secretary Anya Rudenko gleefully admits that she's been dodging the beach police all day.

ANYA RUDENKO: (Through interpreter) If the police tell me to leave, I just walk off the sand and wait. And when they leave, I come back.

KAKISSIS: She says that in Odesa, challenging authority is practically in your blood, like the charismatic gangsters in the stories by the city's beloved writer, Isaac Babel.

OLEKSII TYMCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Oleksii Tymchenko is one of those whose authority is being challenged. He's a community police officer. And he says he has a long list of beach outlaws. He tells those here that he's only trying to protect them.

TYMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) Ukrainian military mined some of our beaches when Russia invaded to guard the sea from Russian forces. Those mines can easily move and end up here, right where you are now swimming.

KAKISSIS: Mines floating in the sea have killed several swimmers in the Odesa region this summer.

SERGEI: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: A white bearded man in red swim trunks says he knows it's dangerous, and he's just going to take his chances.

SVITLANA: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: A woman swimming with him adds, there are no guarantees during war. Who says a missile won't hit me while I'm sitting at home with a TV remote in my hand? The swimmers give their names as Sergei and Svitlana, but they won't reveal anything else, lest Officer Tymchenko finds them. The officer calls for backup, and soon, nearly everyone leaves. Halyna Druz, the 90-year-old mermaid, she stays on the beach. And the police eventually give up and leave. Druz says she's trying to defend something precious.

DRUZ: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: "This war has tried to take our summer away from us," she says, "swimming in our sea is our way of taking it back." Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Odesa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.