A van, twenty-four-hour driving, headaches, delays, border closures, and rushing suitcases across the border crossing – that’s what a reporter’s trip to Ukraine looked like. After more than 24 hours, the first destination, the port city of Odessa, was in sight. Although in the first months of the war this city survived heavy shelling, naval attacks, uncertainty and fear, the leaders of Odessa, as well as the citizens themselves, were determined to enter the seventh month since the beginning of the invasion freely, bravely and “normally”. Such an atmosphere reigns in Odesa itself, whose residents told our portal that they only want one thing for Vladimir Putin – “to screw up”.
Before you yourself make the decision to go to Ukraine, they warn you about the “wartime rules of conduct.” This does not sound serious at first, because the war has been going on for some time, and we have already survived one bombing.
A positive dose of fear, on the other hand, is never out of place, even in Odessa, which defiantly returns to the “previous state”, but with maximum caution and constant preparation for potential attacks.
The first sight that indicates the fact that you are entering a war zone are military checkpoints, which are located every few hundred meters in certain areas. Thus, after 24 hours of traveling, the door of the van in which the team of journalists and Serbia were located opened, and only the barrel of a military rifle could be seen from the pitch blackness. The cold figure of a relatively young soldier carefully examined the entire vehicle, and then the documentation, because the key item they are interested in is whether you are a Russian spy or not.
When (if) it is determined that you are not, then passage is allowed to the next checkpoint, where the soldiers may or may not repeat the actions of their colleagues.
When you pass countless checkpoints, it means that you have approached Odesa – once the most popular tourist destination in Ukraine, now a port city that has decided to demonstrate defiance and force.
Checkpoints are actually one of the few sights that point to the fact that Ukraine is at war with Russia, and has been for six months now, with no end in sight. The army is also present in the city itself, but in precisely marked areas, and the citizens, it seems, are doing everything to finally remove the word “war” from their vocabulary.
Just a few kilometers from the checkpoints and the premises of the war, the residents of Odessa continued where they were forced to stop on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The city, which until the beginning of this year attracted a huge number of young people who came for annual vacations and guaranteed entertainment, is starting to look like “itself” again, and humor and loud opposition to the forces of war are indispensable part of that.
One city, one message and a man from the Kremlin
On the fairly busy streets of Odessa, we asked citizens how the past six months had changed their lives and their relationship with their neighbors in Russia, and whether they had a message for the Russian president. While everyday life and attitudes differ from person to person, the message for the man who on February 24 signed the decision to start a “special military operation in Ukraine,” as Moscow calls it, is largely identical.
“Nothing much has changed in these six months.” Sirens and grenades disturbed us at first, but now we are all used to the situation and know how to behave. I mostly speak Ukrainian, but I also use Russian words, I came here to study. I’m glad that everyone speaks more Ukrainian now. As far as Putin is concerned, there is no help for him, and I have nothing to tell him except that he should go in the direction of that Russian military ship (cruiser “Moscow” that was sunk near Odessa, prim.aut),” says student Olja (25).
The 52-year-old pensioner Kirill shares the same attitude, only much more openly, loudly and vividly.
“Everything has changed drastically for me since the beginning of the invasion, the way I talk to people has changed. Some want to remain friends and some are now becoming enemies. Those who think that everything should be forgiven, that somehow a deal should be made…Too much has happened for it to be that simple. The line has been crossed. What Russia did to Ukraine cannot be forgiven. I speak a mixture of Russian and Jewish, I grew up with Russian culture, but I am not an imperialist, it was never an aspiration towards Russia. I would tell Putin to shut up, I don’t know who needs him. And I have to tell Russian citizens that they don’t have to be slaves, to stop being submissive, freedom is more valuable than salary and pension,” Kirill says clearly and quite confidently.
However, the spouses Vladislav (55) and Natalia (55), who happened to be in Odessa for a happier reason, testify that in Russia there is a completely different narrative of what is actually happening in Ukraine.
“We are from the vicinity of Kiev, we came here for a wedding.” War for war, but a wedding is a wedding. By the way, our life has completely changed. I lost my job, and my attitude towards Russians changed drastically,” says Vladislav, and his wife Natalija points out that she has never had worse relations with her relatives from Russia.
“I could never have imagined that I would hate them with such a passion.” We have relatives in Russia, we regularly sent them photos and videos of their army’s crimes in Ukraine, but they want to believe the propaganda. Sometimes they tell us that they don’t get involved in politics and won’t deal with such things.”
When asked about the message for the first man of the Kremlin, they shout in unison – “to cringe”.
However, there are also those who openly admit that more than 180 days of struggle have left traces and consequences that will be difficult to repair.
“Before this started, I was supposed to go abroad to work, but now there is nothing. In the beginning, I was much calmer, now the sirens bother me, they affect my psyche. I don’t have anything decent to say to Putin that you could write, nor can I help him, he needs some serious help,” 31-year-old Sergej told us.
The fear that spawned fighters
At the very beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Odessa was surprised by Russian missiles launched from the annexed Crimea. In one of them, almost 30 people died, but it was also a lesson – the armed forces of Ukraine decided to defend the city, at any cost. So it was. First, the Ukrainian fleet sank the pride of the Russian navy – the ship Moskva. Soon, control over Snake Island was re-established.
These moves of the Ukrainian army managed to awaken the hope of the citizens that victory is still possible, but also that there is a reason for them to stay and contribute to the defense of Odessa.
According to the spokesman of the Odesa military administration, Sergiy Bratchuk, the port city was preparing for war even before February 24.
“Odessa was and is ready for defense against the Russian occupier, we have shown that in the past six months.” The Russians had to leave the whole area of Odessa, and we are becoming more powerful every day. It is very important that the line of defense is not only concentrated on the land, but also on the sea. In February, the Russians tried to enter our territory by sea, but due to the strong defense, they were unable to do so,” Bratchuk points out.
According to the data of the military administration in Odessa, before February of this year, around 1,300,000 people lived in this city and its suburbs, while this figure is now 800,000 inhabitants due to evacuations.
Now, although there are still a few barricades, checkpoints, sandbags and the occasional soldier in the city, Odessa is cautiously awaiting the new stage, but, as the soldiers themselves say, they will always be on alert – because that is the way of life now.
Grain and mines
One of the reasons that put Odessa in the center of world attention is the fact that it is a key city when it comes to the export of grain from Ukraine – the granary of Europe.
Due to frequent attacks in the first months of the war, as well as the blockade of the port, which was only recently ended by the agreement signed by Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul, huge amounts of grain remained stuck in Odessa, which, according to Bratchuk, caused great damage. Both in Ukraine and in many parts of the world.
“The port blockade was a huge economic blow to Odessa, Ukraine, but also to most of the world.” There has always been and will be grain in Ukraine, and our biggest task is to get it to other countries. Russia tried to block it, and succeeded for a long time, but we still showed that we can overcome all obstacles,” said the spokesman of the Odessa military administration.
Now the authorities there are facing a new, rather unusual problem. Namely, due to the fact that the Russian fleet tried to approach Odessa during February and March, the military administration of this city decided to place mines, both on the beaches and in the water itself.
As Bratchuk explains, this prevents the enemy from approaching the territory immediately. Meanwhile, the “Moscow” has been sunk, and control has been re-established over Snake Island, but mines are still a problem.
For this reason, access to all beaches is strictly prohibited. However, for some residents of Odessa, the danger of mines was not enough to stop them from doing something this summer that was a practice decades before – to swim in the sea.