Most of Odesa’s historic city centre is eerily quiet, its businesses closed or boarded up, but the Odesa Food Market remains a hive of activity. The two-storey atrium is lined with vendors’ stalls and neon signs advertising a chic eclectic mix of seafood, pasta and pints. Those usual menu items have been replaced with medicine, blankets and protein bars.
The restaurant hall is the new headquarters for the volunteer humanitarian response in Odesa. Ukraine’s third largest city, nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea,’ sits about 130 kilometres east of Ukraine’s southern frontline. So far, the city is largely unscarred by three weeks of war, but among its residents there’s a palpable sense that their days of living in peace are numbered.
“We have a little gap of time to prepare our city,” said Inga Kordynovska. Like the Odesa Food Market, she too has been repurposed. Before the war, she ran a law firm. Now she’s in charge of the city’s well-oiled humanitarian operation.
The collection centre inside the Market appears remarkably well-organized considering it germinated in a chat group among Kordynovska’s friends just three weeks ago. The hall is guarded by Ukrainian soldiers and surrounded by sandbags. Dozens of volunteers parade in through the front entrance, carrying boxes of donated supplies. Those boxes are stacked against the walls, where they’re opened by volunteers who label each item and type the details into a computer system. From here, they’re distributed to civilians and soldiers.
The donations of food, water, medicine and clothing come mostly from local businesses. Some have arrived from abroad. However, three weeks into the war, supplies are already running out. At the limited number of grocery stores that remain open in Odesa, shelves are half empty.
“We don’t have Russian occupation in the city, but it’s really difficult to find some very necessary things, especially medicines,” Kordynovska said.
Civilians prepare to fight as Russian troops close in on Odesa
Russia’s push into parts of Ukraine appears to have stalled. Still, its military is accused of attacking humanitarian aid convoys and choking Ukraine’s supply chains.
In another defiant video recorded in the streets of Kyiv Saturday, the Ukrainian President said Russia is trying to starve civilians into submission.
“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Volodomir Zelenskyy said. “They have a clear order to do absolutely everything to make the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukrainian cities an ‘argument’ for Ukrainians to cooperate with the occupiers. This is a war crime.”
The choice facing a fast-growing number of Ukrainians is stark: stay and risk dying, or attempt to leave their country and family members behind.
Ukrainian men are required to remain and engage in the fight. Every day, train stations are packed with hundreds of people, in what has fast become heart-wrenchingly routine: Scores of women and children boarding trains to leave Ukraine, saying goodbye to their husbands and fathers, perhaps for the last time.
Global News met Anna and her 8-year-old daughter Victoria, wiping tears from their cheeks while waiting on the platform. As the train approached, Anna gripped her husband’s arm.
“We couldn’t wait any longer,” she said. “We have to go while there’s still an opportunity. But we’re leaving with very heavy hearts.”
As the train slows to a stop, hundreds scrambled on board to secure a coveted spot on the packed train. As a result of the rush, there was no time for Anna to say a proper goodbye to her husband.
Before long, he spotted her seated with their daughter through a window next to the platform. He lingered outside as long as he could, pressing his hand to the window glass as Anna blew kisses from inside. As the train pulled away, his eyes welled up. He then left the train station and returned home without his family or any idea whether he’ll see them again.