Ukraine: Odessa is back in Russia’s crosshairs | International

The fishmonger Zina laughed so much and so hard in the market that it threw everyone off balance. In a wake environment, her laughter was so shrill that some turned around in disgust, others glanced sideways and others sped up her pace trying to prevent anyone from linking them to her. Zina Demechenko, 59, was selling something similar to sole, red mullet and sea bass from the Danube and the Black Sea on Tuesday at her 2×2-meter stall in the central market of Odessa, a square where greengrocers, vendors of spices, the sharpeners or the sellers of pomegranate juice. Until February 24, this covered space was a daily bustle of people, smells, life and colors. However, as 250,000 people—a quarter of the city’s one million population—have left the city, sounds like laughter and music have slowly faded from the streets. So Demechenko’s laugh on seeing that the fish she was gasping for in her basket was so alive that she wanted to jump away until it fell on a nearby lettuce sounded like the air-raid alarm: an unusual noise viewed with distaste in the midst of so much noise. misfortune.

Until then, Demechenko insisted that “Zelensky and Putin have to come to an agreement, because this war can only be ended if they speak up.” He explained “that the city is sad” and that her comadres no longer even come to sell with her “because there is neither gender nor clients”. “I want to go. I just want to get out of here, but I don’t know where”, she added desolate while repeating two words heard a thousand times: “Fear” (not knowing when or where the next missile will land) and “uncertainty” (before what will happen tomorrow) .

Since the missiles have fallen again in Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city and the first port in merchandise traffic, all eyes have turned to this strategic point. For Zina Demechenko it is not easy to sleep knowing that she is in the crosshairs of Vladimir Putin’s army. Just as she knows that her fish comes from the Danube, she also knows that those missiles come from the Crimea

The military spokesman for the Odessa region, Sergei Bratchuk, assures in a conversation with EL PAÍS that the situation in the city is under control “right now”. But he blurts out the term uncertainty when he acknowledges that, once the amphibious attack by Russian forces has been neutralized, the main danger now is the missiles that can fall at any moment. “We know that the city of Odessa is related to the imperial myths of Russia. There is no Russia without Ukraine and there is no Russia without Odessa, ”he sums it up just three hours after the two-day curfew imposed on the port city ended. “We wanted to avoid concentrations and provocations. Russia likes symbolic dates. We had information that they intended to use May 1 and 2 to call rallies that would end violently, ”he explains in front of a door full of sandbags that protects the official building where he works.

According to the declarations of different Russian military authorities, Odessa is in the center of the strip that Moscow aspires to control and that begins in the east, continues through Kharkov and continues to Mikolaiv, just an hour and a half from Odessa, where important ground and air battles.

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Residents of Odessa visit the Tairovske cemetery this Sunday, damaged by a Russian missile.
Residents of Odessa visit the Tairovske cemetery this Sunday, damaged by a Russian missile. STRINGER (REUTERS)

After reducing Mariupol to rubble, everything indicates that Moscow intends to control the southern fringe of the country and thus leave Ukraine without access to the sea, through which part of the war material it needs enters and a large part of its grain and steel exports leave. They provide you with cheap oxygen. At the same time, in the west, tension is increasing day by day in Moldova, and especially in its rebel enclave with a pro-Russian majority, which is home to 2,500 Russian soldiers and a good war arsenal. The breakaway region is the perfect excuse for the Kremlin to enter Moldovan territory, after a series of mysterious explosions blamed on “terrorists” in recent days.

Transnistria, which declared independence in 1990 after the Soviet Union dissolved, borders southwestern Ukraine and is controlled by pro-Russian officials. Their situation is similar to that of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. In both zones, Putin can display his propaganda that he only seeks to protect the Russian-speaking population. In his advance from the east, having controlled Mariupol, the next important point is Mikolaiv. Military experts in Odessa quietly acknowledge that losing that city would mean leaving Russia one step away from the pearl of the Black Sea.

While the strategies are designed on the map, the alarms are sounding again these days in Odessa after a few weeks of relative calm. Several “high-precision Onyx” missiles — in Russian terminology — hit and destroyed much of the airport on Monday. However, the Russian Onyx did not hit the airport, but a building of ordinary neighbors. Specifically, against the house of Viacheslav, a 13-year-old teenager who lived in a small building where the vast majority of his neighbors are retirees. Viacheslav, according to the military chief of Odessa, was one of the few residents who had downloaded the application that alerts the mobile phone of the beginning of the air alert with enough time to look for a shelter or a basement. So Viacheslav used to run knocking door to door to the houses of the elderly neighbors every time it rang. He did the same on Monday before the high-precision missile entered his house. “He saved many people before he died,” Sergei Bratchuk recalls.

A 20-minute walk from the military headquarters, the fishmonger Demechenko did not know the details of the Russian attack, but she did know that a young man the age of her grandson had died. She was the excuse to keep talking about the missiles on Saturday, and the ones on Monday, and the anti-aircraft alarms on Tuesday and how she can’t sleep. And, as she spoke, the smile that minutes before had confused everyone, began to look like sadness that shortly after turned into tears in front of the fish. That, going from laughing to crying in a moment, is what the uncertainty of not knowing when a “high-precision missile” is going to kill you means.

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