War in Ukraine: Concert on the barricades of the Odessa Opera House | International

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Ivan is shocked. He says that he cannot define it any other way. “I wake up and I still don't believe it. We are in war. Russia is attacking us,” he says. The 21-year-old, tall, stocky and with an easy smile, is part of the orchestra of the Ukrainian naval forces. He plays the trombone and has joined his classmates for a small concert in front of the baroque Odessa Opera and Ballet building, fortified with sandbags. Music between the barricades that protect the heart of the port city from the attacks of Vladimir Putin's Army and that together with the military give the whole color of a World War II movie.

Odessa awaits an imminent attack from the Russian forces, who are advancing on the southern flank and eager to conquer the entire coast. The city tries to shield itself and strengthen civil resistance. Also to encourage her to the rhythm of the Ukrainian national anthem and Don't worry be happy, by Bobby McFerrin. A bit of that mythical humor of the citizens of Odessa, which has littered its streets with posters that literally send the Kremlin troops to hell—sometimes in more obscene and other more poetic ways.

Odessa, Ukraine, aid coordination center for militias. Photo: MARIA SAHUQUILLO

Founded by Catherine the Great in the late 1700s, Odessa was the crown jewel of the Russian Empire, and a key trading port for the Soviet Union. Today it is the third largest city in Ukraine, with around a million inhabitants, and a strategic port on the Black Sea that the Kremlin wants to conquer. And not only because of its geostrategic and commercial importance. It is also embedded very deeply in the imagination of Putin and other Russian nationalists as a key to reconstruction of the "New Russia" of the imperial era, a region along the warm Black Sea in which Odessa is key.

The city is also one of the main dialectical focuses of the Russian offensive against Ukraine and its operation to “denazify” the country. In the spring of 2014, organized groups of pro-Russian separatists backed by the Kremlin seized official buildings and launched riots across the east and various points in the south of the country. In Odessa, Ukrainian ultranationalists and hooligans violent soccer players clashed with the participants of a separatist march. The pitched street battles ended with 48 deaths, the vast majority in the fire of a union building, on the outskirts of the city; most were pro-Russian. The case is still under investigation, but little progress has been made.

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Shortly before ordering the invasion, Putin recalled what happened in the house of the unions and assured that he was prepared to do everything possible to punish those responsible for that tragedy. “The criminals who committed this evil act have not been punished. No one is looking for them, but we know them by name,” he said.

The tragedy is a huge "black spot" in the city, says Katia Salvina, a young engineering student. It's March 8, Women's Day, and her boyfriend, Valeri, has given her a bouquet of orange tulips. A touch of "normality and tradition" in a war that has already been going on for 13 days, says the boy. The 22-year-old couple says that they had never been interested in politics and that they saw Russia, where they have friends and family, as a close country. "No more. Maybe it's not all of Russia, it's Putin, but what they're doing here is criminal,” says Valeri, as he shakes his head. He wants to join the Territorial Defense Forces to protect the city's critical infrastructure, but the Odessa brigades were filled two days after the invasion. Now there is a waiting list.

A few days ago, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, assured that the government had information that Russia would attack the city with force very soon. "The Russians have always come to Odessa," he said in one of his video messages. “In Odessa they have always been received warmly. Always with sincerity. And now that? Bombs against Odessa? Artillery against Odessa? Missiles against Odessa? It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime”, he warned.

Putin's forces are advancing from the south, they have already taken over the city of Berdyansk, on the Sea of ​​Azov, and Kherson, an important city on the Black Sea. Now they bombard and besiege Mikolaiv, another important port city and the missing piece of the puzzle to solidify an attack on Odessa and could even serve as another amphibious landing craft for the invasion of the black sea pearl. The Kremlin has also placed warships off the coast, threatening the city.

Odessa, which boasts of being an artistic city and also has a reputation for being home to swindlers and gangsters, is preparing to go on the offensive. The charming cafes of the city are closed, the beaches, mined. The streets surrounding the center, with an air between romantic and decadent, almost empty. There is a barricade on almost every corner and anxiety about a major bombardment grows every minute.

In the center of the city, in a fashionable gastronomic market, the general headquarters of the civil resistance has been installed. There, Inga Kordonovska, a 30-year-old lawyer and businesswoman, coordinates groups of volunteers who collect basic necessities, medicine and food for the citizen militias. The idea was born the day of the invasion, in the Telegram group that she has with her friends. "We didn't know what to do, how to contribute, so I started asking what was needed, making lists, and everything has led to this," he says between boxes of canned food and bottles of water, in the modern food court, decorated with a huge oriental-style red dragon, offering champagne, oysters and boasting one of the best coffees in town. That Telegram group has now become dozens of channels that coordinate the Odessa civil resistance, exchange petitions and organize the logistics of preparing 8,000 meals a day, Kordonovska says.

On the barricades of the iconic Opera House, Grigori Barats, director of a historic cultural club in Odessa, taps his feet and head to the folk music that fills the air. He can't contain the smile. Next to him, a duo plays guitar and accordion and sings about “Mother Odessa”: “There are many cities in the world. But there is no more beautiful city than Odessa. I am willing to give my life for her. And if not, hang me."

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