Odessa maintains some normality despite Russian airstrike on southern Ukraine: NPR

Russia has stepped up its airstrike on southern Ukraine by firing missiles at areas beyond the Donbas. But despite the threat, it’s almost as if the war hasn’t hit the port city of Odessa.



ARI SHAPIRO, GUEST:

Russia recently stepped up its airstrike on southern Ukraine. It fires rockets at areas beyond the Donbas and hits food storage facilities in the city of Mykolaiv. And just hours ago, at least 21 people were killed and dozens injured when Russian missiles hit a residential tower and recreation center just outside the city of Odessa. That reports NPR’s Peter Granitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: The sun and beach have a red skull and crossbones that warn of land mines laid to prevent an amphibious landing by Russians. That doesn’t stop a dozen people from jumping over the fence on a beautiful, hot afternoon to enjoy the sun. One of them is an elderly man named Vasiliy (ph). He doesn’t give us his last name. He says he’s a little ashamed of breaking the rules.

VASILIY: (Non-English spoken).

GRANITZ: “Sometimes I worry,” he says. ‘Sometimes not. If I worry all the time, I should live in a bomb shelter.’ While he may sound carefree, others are frustrated. Slava Biletzky has a beer in hand as he takes in the beach and the waves.

SLAVA BILETZKY: (Non-English spoken).

GRANITZ: “People are tired of the war,” he says. “People want to live their normal lives.” Volodymyr Dubovyk is director of international studies at Odessa Mechnikov University. He says that Russia’s desire to conquer Odessa is cultural, historical and economic.

VOLODYMYR DUBOVYK: Odessa is very important to their psyche. I mean, for their understanding of the Russian world, you know, in Ukraine there is no other place than Odessa.

GRANITZ: The city speaks Russian. The port made it one of the largest cities in the Russian Empire, and many Russians vacationed and did business here before the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANITZ: A couple takes wedding photos in front of the sandbags that enhance the city’s 19th-century opera house. A busker plays for tips nearby and a young mother holds her baby on a bench. Fragrant roses ring the empty fountain in the theater garden. Opposite that garden is the town hall. Here we meet the Russian-speaking mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov.

GENNADIY TRUKHANOV: (Through interpreter) The job of the occupiers is to take Odessa, but save as much of it as possible.

GRANITZ: Including the port, which has been inactive since February. It had been Ukraine’s most active seaport before Russian warships blocked exports. Trukhanov himself has a history with Russia. He served in the Soviet army and then served in the Ukrainian parliament as a member of the Kremlin-affiliated Party of the Regions. But he says that if Russia invaded Odessa, the city would know that it is on the side of Ukraine.

TRUKHANOV: (By interpreter) So my point of view, I had it. I have it and I have not changed it. Odessa is a Ukrainian city. Odessa is the most patriotic city of Ukraine.

GRANITZ: Russia’s goal, Trukhanov says, is to choke Odessa from the rest of Ukraine.

TRUKHANOV: (By interpreter) They will try to surround Odessa, to block it from the sea with their warships. If they succeed, but I’m sure they won’t, to take Mykolaiv and then go to Transnistria and fight from there, they could cut Ukraine off from the sea.

GRANITZ: Mykolaiv is a city on the frontline of the war, 80 miles to the east. Russia continues to launch missiles into its residential and industrial areas, including its port. And Transnistria is a Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova to the west. There are about 1,500 troops there, but Ukrainian military sources say they are ill-prepared to launch a real attack on Odessa. There have been no ground battles in Odessa and the missiles aimed at the city are rare.

Two hundred thousand people left the city early in the war, but many returned. And the war and the closure of the port have a negative effect on the city’s economy. Still, its relative safety has attracted 20,000 IDPs, although the mayor says the actual number could be more than double. Hundreds queue every day at a converted school in the center of town. It is now a place for people fleeing the east to get food and clothing.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANITZ: A boy points to the shelves of donated toys. He asks for a bulldozer and gets it. Marina Semeniuk is the volunteer coordinator for the local NGO called Hospitable House, which manages the site.

MARINA SEMENIUK: (Non-English spoken).

GRANITZ: “We don’t call them internally displaced persons. We call them our guests,” she says, “because we hope that there will be peace and that we will rebuild and that all will be well.”

Tanya Lavrenchuk and her two children fled Slovenia in eastern Ukraine in April. They chose Odessa because her mother was here. Tanya was able to find housing and a job because she stayed in Ukraine. She does not need a new work permit or learn a new language as she would if she had fled the country. Her children have adapted.

TANYA LAVRENCHUK: (Non-English spoken).

GRANITZ: “This is an adventure for them. They are happy,” she says, which is good, because she doesn’t think she will ever return to the Donbas.

The city has a huge food market. It is a complex of several city blocks. Rows and rows of vendors hunt for vegetables and flowers outside. Whole rooms full of cheese and fish stalls.

(SOUNBITE OF KNIFE SUCCESSFUL)

GRANITZ: It’s the end of the day and a customer is negotiating with a butcher about the price of a piece of pork.

UNKNOWN PERSON: (Non-English spoken).

GRANITZ: A pork seller named Valentina Shchehol’tzova says that things have not really slowed down since the beginning of the war.

VALENTINA SHCHEHOL’TZOVA: (Non-English spoken).

GRANITZ: “Thank God things are normal now,” she says. “I hope they will always be normal.”

Peter Granitz, NPR News, Odessa.

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