Odessa, “pearl of the Black Sea”, clings to peace and prepares for war

Published on: Amended:

Odessa (Ukraine) (AFP) – In front of a barricade erected outside the magnificent Odessa Opera House, a soldier shares a long emotional embrace with his wife and daughter.

With the sweet scent of spring in the air and barricades dotting the city, the Ukrainian port of Odessa, known as the pearl of the Black Sea, clings to peace, but prepares for a Russian attack.

Journalists must show their credentials to gain access to the city’s historic center, which is now clad in cross-welded iron beams, while tanks are deployed at street junctions.

City and defense officials are holding press tours for reporters, thanking them for coming “to show the world what’s going on here.”

Accompanied by two soldiers, a group of reporters are shown what they can and cannot film, but the atmosphere remains relaxed.

Past a set of barricades, a road is cordoned off with large concrete blocks, with the French national motto “Liberté, alité, fraternité” written in French in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

In times of peace, the beautiful center of Odessa, a city founded in the late 18th century by Russian Empress Catherine the Great and Duke de Richelieu of France, bustles with people and noise.

It is home to trendy cafes, the luxurious “Hotel de Paris”, a breathtaking view of the port and of course the 192 steps of the iconic Potemkin Staircase that descends to it.

But today, the silence of the city is broken only by a loudspeaker coming from the famous Odessa funicular, which runs along the stairs. “Attention! Alert! Stay safe!” A few gunshots are sometimes heard from the port.

Perched on a pedestal, the famous statue of Richelieu is now entirely covered with sandbags, a symbolic image of this conflict that has gone around the world.

With the sweet scent of spring in the air and barricades dotting the city, the Ukrainian port of Odessa, known as the pearl of the Black Sea, clings to peace, but prepares for a Russian attack BULENT KILIÇ AFP

A statue of Catherine the Great, shorter and less vulnerable, has only the Ukrainian flag to protect her.

“Impassable Fortress”

“Our beautiful Odessa,” says Lyudmila, an elegant elderly woman wearing bright lipstick, as she gazes desolately at the empty, barricaded streets of her city.

“I don’t know if there’s another city like this in the world. But thank God we’re holding on! Everybody’s holding on!”

The silence of the city is broken only by a loudspeaker coming from the famous funicular of Odessa:
The silence of the city is only broken by a loudspeaker from the famous Odessa funicular: “Attention! Alert! Stay safe!” BULENT KILIÇ AFP

Diana Krainova, a smiling young soldier who accompanies the journalists, adds: “It hurts to see our historical heritage covered with sandbags and barricades, but we are ready.”

A few streets away, Maria, a little sixty-something clutching grocery bags in each hand, rushes to her building, the entrance to which has been barricaded with tires by local residents. “I’ve spent my whole life here, it’s terrible to see that,” says Maria.

And suddenly, without warning, Odessa Mayor Gennadiy Rukhanov emerges onto the street from a series of meetings, accompanied by several aides, and stops to talk to reporters.

Originally from Odessa, the controversial politician has been its mayor since 2014. Rukhanov had been implicated in the Panama papers, a list of companies and businessmen from various countries suspected of tax evasion and money laundering. ‘money.

“I never thought I’d see something like this – the duke covered in sandbags,” Rukhanov said.

“We had planned to renovate the city center, and there we think of the war. It’s horrible, it doesn’t make sense.”

Odessa, a key port of around 1 million people, of whom around 100,000 have left since the start of the invasion, is both a strategic and symbolic target for the Russians.

Odessa, a key port of around 1 million people, of whom around 100,000 have left since the start of the invasion, is both a strategic and symbolic target for the Russians
Odessa, a key port of around 1 million people, of whom around 100,000 have left since the start of the invasion, is both a strategic and symbolic target for the Russians BULENT KILIÇ AFP

Rukhanov said Odessa was ready to fight thanks to “heroic cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson” in the east which firmly repelled Russian troops.

“It gave us 21 days to prepare, build barricades, provide food, medicine and make our city an impregnable fortress,” he said.