Stevedores of Odesa's docks know their worth in wartime

As the world prepares to mark a year since the Russian invasion, keeping grain flowing out of war-torn Ukraine has become a global priority

A view of the grain terninal in the Port of Odesa. Getty
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The air raid sirens at the Port of Odesa sound, on average, four to five times a day. When they howl, all work stops.

The stevedores attempting to load ships with grain head to the shelters.

Feeding the world in wartime is an arduous task — and with the risk of attack high, a perilous one.

Andriy Dolmatov, the port's chief foreman, has become used to dodging air strikes, but he is feeling the pressure.

The 49-year-old, who began working in the port at age 19, casts an imposing figure as he sits at his kitchen table, compulsively folding a paper napkin, as he tells The National of his team's efforts to keep the ships moving.

Incoming cargo ships are inspected by military personnel before being allowed passage into the port. Crews are then checked and ships searched thoroughly for a second time.

The fear of a Trojan horse-style attack is on everyone’s mind. The anxiety at work never lets up for Mr Dolmatov but it is a small price to pay for such a vital job.

“Knowing the work is important for the war effort and the world gives me confidence,” he says.

“I believe in the armed forces and their air defence. It works. I’ve seen drones being hit in the air.”

Natalia Humeniuk, head of the press centre of the Defence Forces of Southern Ukraine, echoes Mr Dolmatov’s sentiments with the confidence that only a wartime press secretary can deliver.

“I can say that the defence forces provide absolute safety for the port and the sea transport routes,” she says.

But her tone becomes weary when the subject of the air raid sirens is brought up. She confirms with a sigh that everything must stop, including the loading of grain, to save the lives of those working in the port.

Mr Dolmatov recalls the moment in September when a fleet of Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones launched by Russia attacked infrastructure targets across Odesa, as the Ukrainian armed forces made desperate attempts to shoot them down with their assault rifles.

As men ran for cover, one drone slammed into its target, causing a huge explosion in the port. Mr Dolmatov was at the port at the moment of impact.

“I saw the consequences and it was very loud. I was anxious but not scared,” he says. “I’ve got used to the war.”

That strike came two months after an “unprecedented agreement” on grain corridors was announced by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres about five months into the war, which, on top of loss of life and devastation in Ukraine, has caused food prices to rise globally.

Before the war, Ukraine was frequently described as the breadbasket of the world.

The war has devastated Ukraine's economy, shrinking it by a third, and has made a significant dent in world prosperity.

Since the Russian invasion, the cost of bread has spiked in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen, to name a few, exacerbating the situation in countries already struggling with rampant inflation, rising costs and malnutrition.

“The shock of war on demand and prices has cascaded through the global economy and, in conjunction with Covid and other policy decisions, has created headwinds to growth,” says Robert Kahn, director of global macro-geoeconomics at the Eurasia Group.

“And I think we are not done yet.”

The war has shown the personality of the people. Their strength. The war has shown who is who
Andriy Dolmatov, Port of Odesa foreman

How the conflict plays into shifts that were already reshaping the global economy before Russia's tanks rolled in — record rises in public debt, inflation-fuelled cost-of-living crises and labour shortages in essential sectors — will determine its deeper impact.

The amount of grain leaving Ukraine has dropped, with inspections of ships falling to half what they were four months ago and the backlog of vessels is growing.

The hurdles come as separate agreements brokered last summer by Turkey and the UN to keep supplies moving from the warring nations and reduce soaring food prices are up for renewal next month. Russia is also a top global supplier of wheat and other grains, sunflower oil and fertiliser, and officials have complained about the hold-up in shipping, particular of nutrients critical to crops.

Under the deal, food exports from three Ukrainian ports have dropped from 3.7 million metric tonnes in December to three million in January, according to the Joint Co-ordination Centre in Istanbul. That is where inspection teams from Russia, Ukraine, the UN and Turkey ensure ships carry only agricultural products and no weapons.

The drop in supply equates to about a month of food consumption for Kenya and Somalia combined. It follows average inspections per day slowing to 5.7 last month and six so far this month, down from a peak of 10.6 in October.

This has led to backups in the number of vessels waiting in the waters off Turkey to either be checked or join the Black Sea grain initiative. There are 152 ships in line, the JCC said, a 50 per cent increase from January.

This month, vessels are waiting an average of 28 days between applying to participate and being inspected, said Ruslan Sakhautdinov, head of Ukraine's delegation to the JCC. That is a week longer than in January.

“I think it will grow to be a problem if the inspections continue to be this slow,” said William Osnato, a senior research analyst at agriculture data and analytics firm Gro Intelligence. “In a month or two, you’ll realise that’s a couple a million tonnes that didn’t come out because it’s just going too slowly.

“By creating the bottleneck, you’re creating sort of this gap of the flow, but as long as they’re getting some out, it’s not a total disaster.”

Ultimately, the Black Sea grain initiative is not as effective as Ukraine would like.

Still, the UN described it as a “beacon of hope” in the darkness of the ongoing war.

And for Mr Dolmatov and his men, it was the life raft they desperately needed.

For the first half of last year, all operations in the port had shut down. Mr Dolmatov couldn’t work. Many people lost their jobs as private contractors began to shut up shop and move abroad.

Mr Dolmatov believes productivity in the port has returned to prewar levels, however Dmytro Barynov, deputy chairman of the Administration of Sea Ports of Ukraine, puts the productivity figure much lower.

“Since the beginning of November, the port of Odesa has been operating at only 50 per cent capacity because the Russians are artificially creating a queue of ships in the Bosphorus,” he says.

“Today, the world could receive 28 million tonnes of Ukrainian agricultural products instead of 19 million.”

Alongside Odesa, the ports of Yuzhne to the east and Chornomorsk to the south-west are also open, however the port of Mykolaiv farther north has been forced to suspend operations.

Away from the ports, it is not only the Russian Navy that continues to be a threat in the Black Sea: Ms Humeniuk maintains, despite Russia’s claims to the contrary, that it was Ukraine’s adversaries who mined the waters.

She chuckles ironically as she recalls how the Russians happened to know exactly where and how many mines there were when they accused the Ukrainians of laying the floating booby traps.

As the anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches, the stormy winter weather is causing the mines to drift into the grain corridor, making any ship’s path a treacherous one.

“The grain corridor is not a separate, set road,” says Ms Humeniuk. “It’s just a roughly determined route. We have to check every time if there are mines, to guarantee the safety, which is complicated.”

Back at Mr Dolmatov’s kitchen table, the responsibility he feels to his employees and to the world is palpable. He returns to folding his napkin as he admits he is proud of, but worries about, the men on his team who decided to quit and take up arms against Russia.

“The war has shown the personality of the people. Their strength,” he says. “The war has shown who is who.”

He keeps an eye out for Russian sympathisers.

“My crew is like a cross section of society and the port is like a country. There are good people and bad,” he says. “Yes, I suspect some people of collaborating. I can’t fire anyone because of hearsay, but if I could, I would.”

For now, he is determined to carry on working the job he loves to provide food for his family and the world. He’s grafted his way up the port ladder for 30 years and nothing is going to stop him — not even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its increased attacks on infrastructure.

When asked if he gets scared, he glances at his wife, sitting nervously on the sofa nearby, and answers succinctly.

“It’s better to work in a dangerous situation than not all!”

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Updated: February 23, 2023, 9:58 AM