“It’s cold, huh?” says Inga as she hurries up from the shelter. “It’s really unusual that it’s so cold in Odessa at this time of the year, but there’s one thing that consoles us all: that those damn Russian sailors are also freezing in their warships and they can’t do anything, they can’t fire because there’s too much fog, they can’t disembark because the sea is rough… I hope it gets worse and worse until they freeze to death.”
Inga is the coordinator of the Humanitarian Volunteer Centre that now occupies the entire premises of the Odessa Food Market. Until two weeks ago, this place was more of a gallery than a market, with stalls from all the popular culinary traditions and lots of colorful neon lights.
Now the neons are off, and on the side railings of the second floor balcony there are Ukrainian flags, culminating in the center of the court with a banner that reads “Russian ship, go fuck yourself.” There are more than a hundred volunteers at this center, which we had mistaken for the Red Cross due to the large flag outside.
“We needed a symbol to be recognizable and we chose the cross of St. George,” explains Inga, a little embarrassed by the lack of originality. The entrance is protected by two sandbag trenches on both sides, and to the left there are dozens of crates of water covered in fresh snow.
While they check our papers, some young men unload boxes from a van and wait for an armed man to pass them through the metal detector. This means that the fear of saboteurs and infiltrators is present together with the fear of attacks. If the device is silent, the young men carry the packages to the second floor, and on each trip they’re redder in the face from the cold and fatigue. Inside, it’s like a beehive: the yellow and orange reflective vests of the volunteers are moving incessantly from one point to another in the former radical chic market.
There are those who take out the contents of the packages, who arrange the goods on tables and shelves, who draw up the inventory and arrange pieces of cardboard with labels written in highlighter. And then there are those who do the opposite, filling packages to be shipped and bringing them back to the lobby where new vans are constantly arriving.
“Most of this stuff we’re distributing to the territorial defense battalions,” continues Inga. “Especially medicines and food. Since the army distributes first to the military and the National Guard, the volunteers of the territorial battalions are the ones who have the least. Then we have a special collection for babies: diapers, homogenized food, powdered milk.” “Do you also distribute weapons?” we ask. “No, we don’t have the permits to buy them or the money. But we are trying to bring in bulletproof vests and helmets from Poland and Moldova.”
“But how come there are all these guys here? They didn’t enlist?” we ask. “Unfortunately there are not enough guns for everyone, and without guns, what are we sending them to do? And there are so many of them already, all people who until two weeks ago were living a normal civilian life and now are defending us from these murderers.”
There are hints of tears in her eyes, and we ask her if she has anyone on the front lines: “My father, my brother, most of my friends are either in the army or in volunteer groups,” she says quickly. “Everyone wants to do their part,” she concludes, composing herself so quickly that it’s as if she’s compelled by a hidden sense of duty, as if showing up frail at a time like this was a disgrace.
Not far away, Victoria, a middle-aged lady, shows us around the “M foundation,” a charitable organization that operates mainly through international donations. The premises are much more cramped than those at the food market, and we have to move and excuse ourselves constantly so as not to get in the way of those shuttling between the entrance and the warehouse with boxes in hand. “This is one of the collection centers we have in the city, I think the largest,” Victoria explains. “Here we take care of the medicine.”
They distribute medicine to the population, to the chronically ill and even to pharmacies and hospitals. “It’s getting harder and harder to find the prescriptions you need, and that’s why we’re trying to stock up, we’re in constant contact with doctors at hospitals around here to try to figure out what’s needed most.” She tries to introduce us to the coordinator of the center, but the lady, sitting at a desk with three phones ringing at the same time, can do no more than shake our hands and thank us dryly before plunging back into work.
All this incessant activity we’ve tried to describe is in sharp contrast with the streets of Odessa. The streets are empty, controlled by soldiers who are more and more covered up due to the bitter cold and barricaded behind barriers and barbed wire. Every morning you can see new barricades of sandbags and cement blocks where the night before there was a gate or a simple traffic circle.
Passing through the center, one notices some open gates, and, after the cigarette smoke, soldiers appear who are guarding armored vehicles. They all wave to us to approach or stop to check our documents. Afterwards, there’s the usual lecture about the prohibition to take photos and videos.
Some are asking to check our cell phones or the latest pictures in the camera’s memory. They are not particularly aggressive, especially taking into account the situation and the fact that they would be the first targets of bombardment from the sea. Among civilians, many are afraid of this eventuality, because, as Vladyslav, a Ukrainian computer scientist, explains, “these would not be guided missiles. They would hit large areas, at random even. Imagine the damage that such an attack would cause.” For the same reason, however, many believe that this will not happen.
At the same time, people are looking a little further east, to Mykolaiv, now seen as a key stronghold for Odessa as well. Less than two hours away by car, Mykolaiv covers the eastern flank of the Ukrainian troops stationed in the south, and any Russian breakthrough would cause an inevitable encirclement. This is also because a Ukrainian counterattack from the north seems less likely if the Russian forces continue to approach Lviv.
Several explosions were reported on Friday night near the Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk airports. The two cities, almost equidistant from Lviv along the longitudinal axis, are considered important outposts for the defense of the regional capital, and their fall would open the way towards the “capital of the west.”
Meanwhile, there is growing concern about the possible involvement of the Belarusian army. Some Ukrainian sources have claimed that Lukashenko has already decided to intervene.