For more than three months, Ukraine has been suffering from the war launched by the Russian army. Odessa, the great port of the Black Sea and the country’s third largest city, crosses it in a very special way. A former jewel of the Russian Empire, the “Saint Petersburg of the South” is an important part of the “New Russia”, fantasized by the ideologues of Putinism. It is an essential military target. But while it has undergone several rocket attacks, it remains impregnable for the time being – both by land and sea.
To understand what the Odessites and Ukrainians are going through, our editor-in-chief Michel Eltchaninoff went there, to spend a week in this port city where the grains necessary for the survival of much of the world are blocked. By meeting his intellectuals and his inhabitants, he offers us here his daily log. Today he tells how solidarity is organized in Odessa, by painting the moving portrait of a 69-year-old man, Viktor, for the occasion.
“Odessa seems strangely empty at the start of the week. Few traffic jams, sometimes deserted streets, deserted terraces. The tourist season, the highlight of the year, is cancelled. Many residents have left to seek refuge elsewhere in Ukraine or abroad. Two groups meet on the street:
“Hey, I thought you were gone…
– You can’t see that, because we’re here! We also thought you had left town…
– Well no!
Need and worry
But the city is home to at least 35,000 refugees from areas attacked or occupied by the Russians. They often had to flee hastily, without being able to take anything with them. So they go to help centers, like the one at school No. 17, right in the center. A banner stretched between imposing columns above the entrance sets the tone: “You are not refugees. You are the guests of Odessa.’
However, the sadness and concern can be read in the eyes of the families waiting in front. Inside, several dozen volunteers in black T-shirts are packing bags of food and basic necessities. Marina, who runs the operations, welcomes me with a big smile and shows me what we give to families: linen, crockery and kitchen utensils, shampoos, toothpaste and toothbrushes, laundry, washbasins, diapers, potties, prams, medicines… Trucks are coming from Ukraine and around the world. Odessites, from young people to poor retirees, spontaneously bring some of their groceries with them. But we still miss everything and it would be a disaster if solidarity were to diminish, because here we receive up to 600 families a day.
“You are not refugees. You are the guests of Odessa” © Michel Eltchaninoff
What strikes me is that most of the volunteers in the center are internally displaced, from Donetsk, Kherson or elsewhere. I meet an agile and lively man, Victor† He is 69 years old. We sit down and he tells me his story. This former sports teacher and volleyball coach lived in Mariupol since 1978. When the war started on February 24, he quickly realized that the artillery fire would not stop. Water, electricity and gas were cut off after a few days. The city was surrounded.
So the residents of this high-rise district began to prepare their meals over campfires. Over the weeks, they dug the graves of their neighbors themselves, who died from lack of medicine. March was exceptionally cold. †It was freezing at times, and our windows were broken.to see. With my wife we slept fully clothed, under several layers of blankets. When we went to bed, we took each other’s hands. And we said goodbye.† Viktor pauses, broken with emotion.
The bombs finally reached them after surviving a month and a half: the fifth floor was hit by a gunshot and their building started to burn. Victor and his wife managed to get to 9am. to go to their apartmente to get their cat back. The next morning they and two other couples walked more than twenty kilometers. They got lucky with the military roadblocks. The pro-Russian soldiers from Donbass, and then the Russian troops, let them pass. They were able to reach Berdiansk and then Zaporozhye. “We hadn’t had a hot shower in 45 days. We hadn’t eaten bread in weeks. With my beard I looked like a homeless man. I had lost 18 kilos since the beginning of the war. When we finally arrived in Odessa, at my sister’s house, my family did not recognize us.”
Viktor had to flee Mariupol and go to Odessa. © Michel Eltchaninoff
The categorical imperative in Odessa
A few days after arriving in Odessa, Viktor found this help center and he works there every day from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, unloading trucks, packing bags, running right and left. Thanks to Marina and the other managers there is a good atmosphere. What is their secret? “We are Odessites, she replies: even in bad luck we still joke.”
Viktor seems fulfilled: he is no longer just a refugee being helped, because he helps in turn. In the evening, before new air raids and a power outage, I have dinner with an archaeologist and historian, who now runs the Odessa Art Museum. Kirill Lipatove is concerned about the indifference that Western societies will undoubtedly gain in the face of the stalemate of this war: “At the end of 2022, say during the Christmas holidays, what we are experiencing here, in the middle of Europe, may seem to you as distant and abstract as the war in Afghanistan.” The face and voice of Viktor, the displaced Mariupol, suddenly come to mind. I answer with this single sentence, which immediately reminds me of the categorical imperative of: Kanto † “No, it can, may not be.” †
And find the second article of Michel Eltchaninoff : “The Dangerous Siren Song in Odessa”