Odesa and its oblast’ have sustained shelling and terrorist attacks by the Russian army and navy from the very beginning of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. In July of 2023, Odesa endured the most significant and destructive missile strikes since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Adamdar/CA’s author, Timur Nusimbekov, found himself in Odesa during the beginning and end of the massive July attacks, and documented how the Ukrainians are living and fighting for their city.
July 23. Like all nights prior, the air raid sirens start to go off after midnight. You can hear the sounds of far away shots and bursts. The battle has come to Odesa again. A wave of deadly kamikaze drones heads toward the city; cruise and ballistic missiles, Kalibrs, Oniks, Kh-22, Iskander-K, and Iskander-M , are flying on different trajectories, on varying heights, to Odesa. The soldiers from Odesa’s garrison fire from whatever they have: machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery, rapid-fire cannons, air defense systems. The sky above the city is cleaved by red sightlines and yellow flashes.
Somewhere far away a noise is heard, sounding like the rumble of a moped motor–this is the sound of the Iranian killer drone, Shahed 136. The Odesans nicknamed them “mopeds” because of the characteristic sound. The Shahed 136 holds several tons of deadly explosives. The motor gets closer. In a few seconds, a bright yellow-red flash appears in the Odesan sky; another second and the explosion is heard.
— Nahhh! They knocked out a “moped”, see? — someone joyfully cries out in the dark — Fuck you, but not Odesa!
After a few minutes, it grows quiet. A few people come out from bomb shelters and covers, from parking structures and basements, onto the streets. People breathe deeply, someone smokes nervously, others are laughing, trying to joke, because it’s Odesa–and Odesa holds onto its sense of humor, even while under attack.
A military truck zooms along the road. The vehicle brakes suddenly, and a soldier in a helmet jumps out with a radio in his hand.
— The second wave is coming! Everyone hide! — yells the soldier.
And the people again descend into bomb shelters and hiding places.
From the tiny square of a basement window stuffed with sandbags, only a small piece of the street is visible. There, the blue beams of the ambulance vehicles and police cars blink in and out, and the street light flickers red–almost as if it’s forgotten about green and yellow. In a few minutes, the rumble of shots and bursts from machine and anti-aircraft guns are heard again.
— Those are our boys from missile defense working. Everything will be fine! Everything will be fine! — says a man at my back, calming someone near (or himself) down.
Loud explosions. A huge orange flash blinds the window for a second. The building vibrates from the wave of impact.
— Get away from the window! Shards! — someone screams.
Homes and buildings burn in different corners of Odesa, museums and the Transfiguration Cathedral are ablaze. Rescuers and firefighters of the DSNS spend the whole night putting out fires, looking for ruptured fragments of missiles and drones, pulling people and animals from the basements.
Curfew ends at 5 a.m. People emerge from the old Odesan courtyards within two- and three-story buildings, from the paneled kruschevki, and new, multi-story residential complexes. Some head over to bombed-out apartments and perforated roofs, others toward the museums and monuments, transformed into ruins and piles of bricks by the Russian missiles and Iranian drones from the night before. A third group meets near the Transfiguration Cathedral, which has been damaged by a powerful explosion.
I walk over to the Transfiguration Cathedral and the cathedral square. On other days, in other years, I often walked around this square when I came to stay in Odesa. Yesterday, I was also here. The square was once beautiful and green–it was quiet, peaceful. After my journey to the Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts, I came to especially value beautiful, green, and quiet places. But on the morning of July 23, I don’t recognize this square, or the cathedral. All around me are pieces of destroyed walls, shards, broken glass, fragments of iron and wooden structures. The sea air of Odesa is mixed with the bitter smell of burnt rubber and gunpowder, cinders from extinguished or still-smoldering fires.
Here, working on the square at the cathedral, are the hundreds of people–all ages, professions, and nationalities–of Odesa: workers, taxi drivers, couriers, soldiers, schoolchildren, Indian and Pakistani university students, priests in black cassocks, utility workers in orange pants and shirts.
Most of those gathered are able to control their emotions, but not everyone. An older man, covered head to toe in construction dust, is loudly and deliriously cursing those who sent the missiles and drones to Odesa. Someone is sitting on the pavement, crying, while another cries standing. Others stare in a daze at the mutilated walls of the church.
At one of the cathedral entrances, a volunteer is handing out work gloves and single-use masks. People put on construction helmets and respirators. If there aren’t enough masks, people tie shirts and pieces of cloth around their noses and mouths. They take shovels, wheelbarrows, brooms and head into different areas of the giant cathedral to begin work: sorting the rubble, removing pieces of wooden beams, unearthing pieces of church ornaments, carefully moving fragments of icons and pictures. The police take pictures of the damage and gather pieces to use in the investigation of ongoing war crimes. Something large and heavy breaks off from under the roof and crashes at the far end of the cathedral hall. A bearded police officer in a black baseball jersey gives orders:
— Clear out, any of you without helmets! The roof may collapse!
Only workers, volunteers, and civilians in orange and white construction helmets, soldiers and volunteers in black, olive, and camouflage Kevlar helmets remain.
One grandmother tries to get into the church, but the police won’t let her.
— Granny, you shouldn’t go in there! You don’t have a helmet! It’s dangerous! — yells the police officer directly into her ear (she hears badly).
— I’ll help, let me in — she says, and tries to push her way past the officer.
— We’ll do it ourselves! We’ll figure it out, grandma!
An older woman finds a fragment of a church fresco in the pile of brick rubble and carefully wipes away the dust. On the fragment, there is the face of an angel, or maybe it’s a saint. She crosses herself and kisses it.
A 6-year old girl sits on her heels on one of the lawns in front of the cathedral and diligently removes broken glass, metal shards, bent nails from the grass and throws it all into a plastic bag. One of the adult volunteers tells her that she could cut herself, that she should probably go play with the other kids instead. She says that she doesn’t want to play–she wants to clean the lawn. The volunteer takes off his gloves and asks her to put them on to protect her hands. I move closer and see lots of people–adults and children–in other green parts of the square cleaning the earth and grass.
A group of volunteers drags a giant piece of wooden paneling from the cathedral. One of them notices the yellow-blue Kazakh-Ukrainian patch on my bag.
— Is Kazakhstan with us, too?! — he says, out of breath, but still cheerfully.
— Yes, we’re with you — I respond.
— Alga, Kazakhstan! — he says, joyfully.
I leave the cathedral to find water and clear my throat of the construction dust that hangs in a dense cloud above. On my way out, I see a familiar artist, Yuliya. Yuliya was born in Odesa, but has spent the last 15 years in London, where she’s been gathering donations for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She recently returned to Ukraine to see how her city and her country are living with her own eyes, to document the aftermath of war crimes, and continue gathering donations for the Ukrainian army.
Yuliya tells me how the rascists targeted the House of Scientists (formerly the Tolstoy estate) last night, that they destroyed residential homes in the Primorskiy and Preobrazhenskiy street neighborhoods, and that missiles struck more neighborhoods of her hometown. She says that all of these places have special memories for her, so it’s crucial that she documents what’s happening. Yuliya and I spend the day walking around these places. We chat, or are silent, with locals and volunteers. We photograph, and listen to the stories of people who have had their homes taken from them. We observe beautiful and frightening scenes.
A volunteer in a black T-shirt with the Batman logo, covered head to toe in dust, tosses his shovel and guzzles water near a destroyed house on Preobrazhenskiy street. “This city needs a hero,” — I say, quoting the movie about the superman-bat to bolster him, but he can’t hear me over the noise of shovels and bulldozers.
A large shrub with fake red roses on a destroyed street seems barely to have suffered from the attack. Yuliya carefully brushes off a thick layer of dirt and construction dust from the petals and says:
— These are real roses, not plastic ones.
We stand on the balcony of a partially destroyed House of Scientists with Dima, a young volunteer. Once upon a time, Count Mikhail Tolstoy lived here. Dima tells me about the estate and the neighborhood—he has a background in architecture, so he knows the history of these streets and buildings well.
— During the occupation in 1941 even the Nazis didn’t touch this building, but the rascists have demolished it.
Dima points to where the shards from Russian missiles killed a local. He hopes the person didn’t suffer too long, he says. He points to the old building neighboring the estate–rather, the ruins of the building, as the roof, walls, and rooms were torn out after the explosion.
— It was mostly resettlers and refugees from Kherson and Donetsk oblasts living here — says Dima. —They came to Odesa to be saved from the “Russian World,” but the “Russian World'' caught up to them.
In the evening, not far from the cathedral, we speak with Zhenya. Zhenya is 28, born in Odesa’s oblast’. Up until the full-scale invasion, Yevgeny (Zhenya) worked in a city hospital and emergency medicine in Odesa. A few days after the February invasion, Zhenya said goodbye to his wife and small child and signed up as a volunteer for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, going from a civilian to a military medic. By March 2022, he was already at the front. Yevgeny and his medical platoon saved many lives. Like many Odesans, Zhenya fought in the Donbas and in Kherson. And like all Odesans, he prayed that the war wouldn’t come to his home, to Odesa. But in July 2023, the war–flown in the bellies of missiles, Iskander, Kalibr, Oniks–exploded in Odesa. Yevgeny gave me a patch. On it, there are two soldiers in camouflage, body armor and helmets, with yellow-blue angel wings on their backs, helping a wounded person.
I walk along Deribasovskaya before curfew and see a group of young people on the street, guys and girls singing the songs of Andriy Khlyvnyuk, a.k.a. Boombox, and of the brothers Gallagher, or Oasis. I recognize a group of volunteers amongst the singers who had been working in the ruins earlier. They didn’t have time to change—their shirts and shorts were still covered in dust and soot. A pair of young soldiers in army bucket hats and singed shirts with the Armed Forces of Ukraine chevron walk by us, carrying huge backpacks. One of the girls shouts after them:
— Thank you for defending us, guys!
The soldiers smile, and the girl runs up to hug them.
— Glory to Ukraine, — yells one of the musicians out to them.
— Glory to the heroes! — chorus all those gathered on that small bit of Odesan street: passers-by, young hipsters, rockers, volunteers and soldiers, returning from leave or hospitals.
Those who set off the airborne missiles and killer-drones to this city wanted not just to destroy its houses, ports, and grain storage, but to bring horror and fear to the heart of Odesans. Instead, though, they awoke rage and resistance.
One of the musicians plays a lovely guitar improvisation. I want to remember this street and the smell of this city. I want to remember the style and sound of Odesa—to remember these blues. I want to remember the beauty and strength of those that I’ve met today, and all the days before. I want to remember these boys and girls who, 10-15 minutes before curfew begins, are singing “Live Forever” by Oasis:
Maybe I just wanna fly
Wanna live and don’t wanna die
Maybe I just wanna breath
Maybe I just don't believe
Maybe you’re the same as me
We see things they’ll never see
You and I are gonna live forever...
Tomorrow, one of them will again join up with one of the storm brigades on the steppes at the Zaporozhian front. Another will head off again to volunteer at the military hospital at Mykolaiv or Kherson, another will continue the work at the damaged cathedral or kindergarten. Tomorrow morning, these young soldiers, these volunteers will again head out to fight for this street, for this city, and for this country–just as they have for the past 500 days of this full-scale war.
July 23, 2023
From the author:
For their help in the creation of this material, I want to thank the volunteers of Odesa.
For the protective equipment issued for this trip, I thank Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Kyiv Press Freedom Center.
For help in working in Odesa and around its oblast’, a big thank you to the artist Yuliya Yurchenko and junior sergeant of the Medical Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Yevgeny P.
This piece was created with the support of the Kloop Media Foundation.
To send support to the residents and defenders of Ukraine: