The orderly streets of Odessalined with old plane trees and elegant 19th-century buildings, could easily resemble Barcelona either Milan if it weren’t for the anti-tank hedgehogs that grace its streets. Already in the first days of the invasion they were placed along its central artery, Calle Pushkinskawhich leads from its central train station to the neo-baroque opera house.
With the Russian troops approaching, on Deribasivka street, named after one of the founders of the city José de Ribas, of Spanish origin, crowds of people could be seen in full movement. Instead of strolling or dining in one of the many restaurants, however, they were busy building barricades with sandbags. In this way they tried to protect the city, which was soon attacked by enemy troops during the Second World War, when thousands of their neighbors, many of them Jews, were murdered.
Since February 24, when the Russian invasion began, the port city on the Black Sea coast has returned to a kind of normality. The Russian advance was stopped at Mykolaiv, further east of Odessa. Most of the Russian fleet withdrew towards Crimea fearing Ukrainian missiles after they sank their flagship “Moskva”. Most of the barricades have been removed from the streets and many cafes have reopened. One does not feel the war here as acutely as in the east of the country.
However, such normality is pure illusion, as explained Roman, a young Odesite. Sporadic explosions shake the entire city. Roman and his wife Dasha spent several nights in the hallway of their apartment in fear after a Russian missile hit a residential block at Easter, killing 8 people and wounding 19.
Maxim Voytenko, a journalist from Odesa, shares on his Facebook account: “The residents of the city have always dreamed of empty beaches. Who knew what the price would be? The weather is sunny. Under normal conditions, the kilometer-long sandy beaches of Odessa would already be full. Those who dream of escaping the heat to cool off in the water are greeted by signs that read “mines” and the tapes that cordon off the beaches from the promenade.
Most agree with the ban. Others complain: “I don’t feel safe anywhere in the city. I could easily get caught in the rain of glass shards after a Russian missile hit my neighborhood while out for a walk.” Some do not resist the temptation and still take a bath, ignoring the signs. The police usually show up quickly. No one wants fights, so they resort to apologizing. Most comply.
It is understandable that the Ukrainian military does not provide exact details on precisely where the mines are in the city and in the surrounding area. Parts of the coastline several hundred kilometers have been planted with anti-tank mines and anti-infantry in case of a landing attempt by the Russians. Also, Part of the danger is that strong winds blow Russian mines ashore. It was Russia that mined the sea routes from Odessa and other Ukrainian ports to the Bosporus, blocking all movement of commercial ships in the area since the beginning of the invasion. Since then, Russian mines have been sighted off the coasts not only of Ukraine, but also of Bulgaria and Turkey. According to Sergiy Bratchuk, a spokesman for the local authorities, Ukraine has also laid mines to protect the entrances to its ports.
The large port of Odessa, a major logistics hub that is usually bustling, is now quiet. The ships are moored without doing anything and only a skeleton crew remains to look after them. Some of its facilities have been targeted by Russian missiles. Attacks on the city increased after a Russian general declared the intention to connect Russia with neighboring Transnistriaa separatist territory in moldova.
Budzhak, the large but sparsely populated region west of Odessa, is particularly threatened. It is only connected to the metropolis with a highway and a railway bridge through the Dniester river estuary. The bridge has been repeatedly hit by Russian missiles. One of them recently hit a hotel, underscoring the risks to tourists who used to flood the many tourist villages during the summer.
The lack of tourists and the blockade of the ports suffocate the economy of the largest province of Ukraine. However, even if access to the beaches is closed, some hotels and restaurants have opened. “We have to get ahead or we will have to go abroad to make money. There are also many people here who have worked for us for years. We have to try for her sake. All this is painful. But the most important thing for us is to win the war,” a restaurant owner tells Ukrainian TV channel Suspilne.
The reopening of the ports for the export of grain could help Odesa to overcome the difficulties. Sergiy Bratchuk stresses that Ukraine is not going to demine its ports unless it is sure that Russia will not use this opportunity to attack them. Only when the war is over can the city return to a normal life.