Escape to Odesa: Ukraine's survivors find refuge in a city defying war

A year after the invasion of Ukraine, families forced to leave their homes find a new life in a port city that has withstood ravages of conflict

Widowed mother and grandmother Antonina Olhovska stands on the Black Sea shore in Odesa, Ukraine. Oliver Marsden for The National
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Every morning Oleksii Olhovska would creep out of the basement in Mariupol, where he was sheltering with his family, to check on their apartment.

He would mark the date on the hanging wall calendar, carefully drawing a cross through the day’s square in a simple act that gave him a sense of purpose. On March 27, 2022, the crosses stopped appearing. He was taken away by the Russians.

Three weeks later Mr Olhovska, 78, died of a heart attack more than 1,500km away from Mariupol in the Russian city of Cheboksary.

His wife, Antonina, escaped Mariupol a week before he was taken. She found out about his death from a woman who shared a hospital room with him.

“He had a shrapnel wound in his leg and didn’t want to leave Mariupol. He was stubborn,” she tells The National.

Ms Olhovska, 75, was less dogged. She feared for her granddaughter Alexandra, 19. Reports of rape and looting were spreading through the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city.

“I had so much fear,” she says. “It was like living a nightmare. People were stealing stuff from shops. Doing anything to get drinking water.”

Sitting in the darkness and relative safety of a volunteer centre without power in Odesa, Antonina tells The National how after 17 days in the cellar, under constant shelling, she could take it no longer.

On March 21, she decided to leave with her daughter Olga, 39, and her granddaughter. The women put as many belongings as they could into a small suitcase and backpack. With the family cat, Motya, wrapped in a blanket under one arm and her ageing terrier, Marta, under the other, Ms Olhovska made a dash for the city limits.

The women walked with shells screaming overhead and the bloated bodies of Mariupol’s fallen residents guiding the way.

“There were so many dead bodies. Violet in colour. It was shocking,” she recalls.

They had to navigate a notorious intersection near their home, known to be a favourite among Russian snipers. The three women hastened across unharmed. Ms Olhovska believes the family cat, swaddled in a blanket, helped them survive the gauntlet.

“They must have thought Motya was a baby,” she says.

After 5km they were picked up by a Ukrainian car and paid 3000 Hryvnia ($70) to be driven west to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian seaside town of Berdyansk. From there 52 evacuation buses ferried vulnerable families north to Vasylivka and then to Zaporizhia. Antonina and her family then decided to settle in Odesa.

“I love the sea and the people are good in Odesa. It reminds me of Mariupol,” she says.

At the same moment that the family were running the gauntlet out of Mariupol, 400km west in the occupied city of Kherson, Roman Baklazhov was risking his own life evading Russian soldiers.

When the Russians invaded his city, furniture salesman Mr Baklazhov, 41, a husband and doting father decided to set up a secret humanitarian centre.

But having previously been a partisan for the Ukrainian military during the 2014 war in the Donbas and having helped the nationalist political party Right Sector, a scourge of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, establish a hub in Kherson, he needed to keep his head down.

However, through his connections he was able to organise the delivery of 100 tonnes of potatoes to the city. Volunteers arrived to cook meals for the city’s inhabitants. As Roman helped to furtively move the city’s most vulnerable people out, he sought the assistance of Kherson’s children to smuggle the food across town.

“It was a way of getting around the Russians,” he tells The National from an office block, gazing out at the peach-coloured Catholic Cathedral in Odesa. “They weren’t stopped.”

Mr Baklazhov’s work made him a target for the Russian occupiers and on the morning of July 6 they were at his gate. They searched his house and dragged him off to one of the many temporary jails set up by the Russians. As he was driven down a road he knew well, towards a notorious detention centre, the fear began to take hold.

“I knew what was waiting for me,” he says.

His captors accused him of being “a fascist and a Nazi”. He says they tied him to a chair and connected live electric wires to his earlobes and fingers to torture him, throwing every accusation they could at him in the hope of him admitting his guilt.

“The pain was incredible. I felt like I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon with my eyes popping out of my face. They used the wires again and again,” he says.

While the screams of other detainees permeated the walls around him, the laughter of children playing and people drinking coffee drifted through the window from a cafe across the road. The sounds were surreal and disorientating but Mr Baklazhov never admitted to any involvement with Right Sector or his partisan past.

The harrowing ordeal has left him physically and psychologically scarred. When he met The National, he was concluding a counselling session online. His 1.98-metre frame is stooped and the circles around his eyes attest to sleepless nights.

Mr Baklazhov shared his improvised cell with eight other men. One day a 58-year-old man was only able to crawl back into the room following an interrogation. He had a history of heart complications and was type-2 diabetic. The guards said there was no medicine and four days later the prisoner died in front of his cell mates. Mr Baklazhov later found his relatives and told them he had died.

On August 29, after four interrogations and 54 days in detention the Russian Federal Security Service decided Mr Baklazhov had been “rehabilitated from being a Nazi” and let him go.

A month later, fearing what would happen to him following the results of Russia’s sham referendum on the annexation of occupied territories, he fled Kherson with his wife Elena and three-year-old son.

They first escaped to Vasylivka along the southern bank of the Dnipro River and then managed to head west to President Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih before retreating to the safety of Odesa.

Odesa has managed to weather the war like no other city. After shutting down in the early months of last year in preparation for an invasion that never came, life in the city has returned to relative normality. It has become a safe haven for those escaping from occupied territory in the south-east.

Restaurants and bars bustle with life, trendy citizens sip hot coffee in cafes, and shoppers pop in and out of the Nike store, Tommy Hilfiger and The Body Shop. The curfew, regular power cuts and constant hum of private generators are the only evidence of its wartime status.

According to Natalia Humeniuk, head of the press centre of the Defence Forces of Southern Ukraine, Odesa has managed to remain relatively unscathed due to the successful strategy of Maj Gen Andriy Kovalchuk of Ukraine's Southern Operational Command.

She says: “Anti-landing, anti-aircraft and general defences were built and deployed, taking into account all the risks and geographical features of the region.”

For Mr Baklazhov, the reasons for being in Odesa are simple: “In Odesa there is sunlight and everything works.”

Does he begrudge the city’s inhabitants their peace?

“It’s not Odesa’s fault,” he says. “Mykolaiv would be the same if it wasn’t being bombed. It’s the same way people feel about foreign wars. I’m just glad we are safe.”

Ms Olhovska doesn’t give much thought to how Odesa is faring, despite hearing the missiles and drones being shot down. Her words echo Roman’s as she sits in the dark refuge centre.

“It’s not the people’s fault they were spared,” she says. “I just pray Odesa will not be touched by the Russians.”

For Ms Olhovska, being in Odesa is less about the “normal” life it can provide but the connection she maintains with her dead husband. The sea she stares out at from the shore of Odesa is connected to the sea she would gaze at with her husband in Mariupol via the Kerch Strait. It reminds her of her companion and her old home.

“I can cry by the seaside and it gives me some relief,” she says.

Updated: February 20, 2023, 3:53 PM