ODESSA, UKRAINE (AFP) – Olga Jarova points to a nice spot on the restaurant terrace where President Volodymyr Zelensky sat on his visits to Odessa, Ukraine’s Black Sea port now under de facto Russian blockade.
Before the invasion, Datcha, the restaurant that Jarova manages in a 19th-Century stately home, mirrored the atmosphere in this historic city of sailors founded by Catherine the Great: nostalgic and carefree.
Odessa has so far escaped capture but Russia warns that any ship venturing into its surrounding waters can expect to be met by its cannons.
Kyiv mined the harbour as a preventative measure after the invasion began.
The city, a multicultural crossroads of a million inhabitants, has found itself isolated, forced to turn away from the sea and become more inward looking.
“Turbot, red mullet, goby… 80 per cent of our fish used to come from the Black Sea,” Jarova told AFP. “But now offshore fishing is banned.”
In the morning, volunteers get busy cooking to feed people in need in Ukraine for free. But as they can no longer get fresh fish from the Black Sea, they have to cook fish imported from Asia.
Because they only ever cooked locally caught fish before, they have had to learn how to prepare this new “catch”, said 47-year-old Jarova.
“With the catch from Asia, we didn’t know how to season it at the beginning,” she said with a smile.
An air-raid siren goes off, a harsh reminder that Odessa is living somewhat on borrowed time. About 130 kilometres to the east, the city of Mykolaiv has been holding the defence of southern Ukraine.
Mykolaiv has been regularly targetted by Russian forces since the start of their invasion on February 24 but the Ukrainians have prevented them taking all the coast – despite near daily bombings.
Russian-speaking Odessa, known as the pearl of the Black Sea situated near Moldova and NATO member Romania, is a key economic hub.
It knows only too well that it is coveted by Russian President Vladimir Putin for historic as much as for strategic reasons.
Residents are proud of their renowned city, with its pleasant climate, rich cultural life, and its French- and Italian-influenced architecture.
But its seabound activities are now off-limits.
“Every day, including the weekend, I come to make camouflage netting for the army,” said Natalia Pinchenkova, 49, behind a large Union flag, a show of thanks to Britain for its support for Ukraine since the conflict erupted.
That’s “the least we can do” compared to the “suffering of those in Mykolaiv”, she added.
On every street corner, as well as in gymnasiums and theatres, volunteers are busily doing their bit for the war effort in temperatures of over 32 degrees Celsius.
“People don’t want to stay at home alone listening to the bad news on the radio,” said 21-year-old Bogdan Halaida, who helps organise one of the volunteer groups.
“Here at least they can talk to someone and not worry too much about what’s coming next.”
Fevzi Mamoutov, 31, an ethnic Tatar, prepares the rice dish plov in a big cooking pot with about 40 volunteers in his former cultural centre, which has been transformed into a military mess.
“My family had to leave Crimea” after it was annexed by Russia in 2014 “so I know what the Ukrainians who are currently fleeing the Russian invasion are feeling”, said the former wrestler dressed in an orange T-shirt.
If Odessa faces an assault “I’ll fight because we have good weapons this time”, said Mamoutov, referring to the repression of the Tatars by Joseph Stalin after their forced displacement in 1944.
Journalist Yuriy Basijuk has converted his TV studio into a storage site.
“At the start we delivered 10,000 pairs of socks to Kharkiv”, eastern Ukraine’s biggest city, he said, by way of illustrating the diverse needs in times of war.
“We send drinking water to Mykolaiv which is deprived of it, thanks to three daily rotations by bus,” added Basijuk, who founded a widely followed Internet site in Ukraine.
France said it is ready to assist in an operation to allow safe access to Odessa.
Senegalese President and African Union head Macky Sall has urged Ukraine to demine waters around the Odessa port to ease much needed grain exports.