The sound in the name Odesa would easily drive one to associate one of Ukraine’s famous cities with the 70s and 80s best-selling thriller, The Odessa File, by Englishman Frederick Forsyth. However, as it turns out, there is no relation between The Odessa, the novel, and the Odesa, a Ukrainian city on the shores of the world-famous Black Sea.
Frederick Forsyth’s Odessa were initials in German language referring to a fictitious pressure group set up to protect former Nazi commanders that had escaped the hangman at Nuremberg and ended up living fairly comfortable lives, albeit incognito, in European cities and parts of South America.
To most Kenyans, however, owing to Forsyth’s novel, Odessa has been a title of a book majorly because of the name, but after Russia invaded Ukraine, Odesa changed meaning – it became one of the names told and repeated in war stories from Eastern Europe through international broadcasters and newspapers reporting on the progress of war.
In the last few months, Odesa has cropped into Kenya’s public conversations as the government, beginning last year with the Uhuru administration and now the Kenya Kwanza administration explained the rising cost of living. The Russian war on Ukraine was cited as one of the causes of expensive unga which is mwananchi’ staple food. Kenya has been a beneficiary of Ukrainian commodities, including grain, edible oil, iron and steel that are brought into the country.
Our tour of Ukraine established that of the assets that the country has, Odesa remains one of the most heavily guarded. The Ukrainian army guards Odesa by sea by air and by land. That much can be revealed and not more – owing to the state of war in Ukraine.
Making our way to the town that is much ‘warmer’ than Ukraine’s capital Kyiv – 9 degrees centigrade to be exact, since Kyiv temperatures ranged between 4 degrees and 0 degrees centigrade while we were there – we found the city is monitored, and secured entirely without much interference with the activities of the people. We are told that security surveillance is everywhere but you don’t see uniformed forces on the streets or along roads, neither do you come across roadblocks – but the assurance is that the eyes of the military are everywhere.
We confirm this as we head to the Odesa port that has suffered Russian missiles upwards of 20. Here, along the seaside, you do not film, you don’t access that facility while carrying a phone, or a camera – only a sound recorder. The kind of journalism allowed here was through observation and interviews with Ukrainian State officials and video footage plus pictures shared by authorities. All these in the name of protecting Odesa, officials say.
After accessing the port, we walk to the front of what was The Odesa Port Hotel perched on the cold beach of the Black sea, now a shell of its former self. It was hit by a Russian missile two months ago.
The Deputy CEO of Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority Dmytro Barinov, whose mandate is to ensure that the Odesa Port is functional and that grain and other cargo leave Ukraine to parts of the world, says the hotel was damaged in one of the many attacks in the last four months.
“The September attack damaged the whole hotel as you can see,” says Barinov
“One terminal of the port was also damaged. That terminal was among the ones used as part of the Grain Initiative within the Black Sea corridor to send grain across the world, including African countries,” he says.
The Grain Initiative was organised by Turkish authorities with the help of the United Nations where Russia signed a deal – now called The Black Sea Grain Initiative – that allowed a sea corridor three miles wide where ships would access Ukrainian ports, including Odesa, to carry cargo to parts of the world. However, as Ukrainian officials say, Russia has been going against the deal through numerous unpredictable war antics, including night shelling.
“Most of the vessels using that corridor were going to the ports of Africa to take grain there,” says Barinov. “But now and again, the Russian army scares away the cargo ships through military exercises in the Black Sea to show their might.”
The ministry of Infrastructure that runs Ukrainian ports said in a statement that in a span of four months alone – between July 17, 2023, and November – there were 23 attacks on port infrastructure in the Odesa region alone.
“The Odesa seaport has been attacked seven times,” said the ministry’s press office in a statement to The Standard.
Barinov has a tale of frustration and anguish when he speaks about effects of Russian aggression on Ukrainian ports.
“Our message, not only to Africa but the whole world, is that there is no place in the 21st century for lack of food that is caused by countries with colonialist tendencies like Russia,” he said and added “African countries should join the whole world to push Russia to stop this aggression.”
Apparently, Ukraine officials believe that one of Russia’s secret plan as it runs this war against Ukraine is to freeze food supplies as a war strategy against Ukraine and its friends.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, at a meeting witha team of African journalists at his office, said that Ukraine has lived through the malevolent Russian tactics where the Kremlin has on many occasions caused deaths of innocent people through artificial hunger.
“In Ukraine, we once lost about 8 million people to a war of famine artificially created by a communist regime at the Kremlin in the 20th century. That strategy is still being employed by Moscow,” said Shmyhal. “Having this tragic experience, we in Ukraine will do our utmost not to stop a repeat of such an atrocity in any part of the world.”
The Great Ukrainian Famine now recorded by many accounts, including United Nations and the government of Ukraine itself, emanated from a Josef Stalin policy that reorganised farming, moving it from each farmer running their farm to a collective system where all grew grain through a centralised society. An interesting element of the plan was that farmers never touched their own grain after harvest.
All would be shipped to centralised government stores and would be supplied at will by Stalin’s government. Between 1932-33, Stalin who considered then Soviet Ukraine, a rebellious territory that forever wanted to secede, launched a programme of denying its people food.
Shmyhal’s office reports that at least 8 million Ukrainians died from this Kremlin malevolence while the United Nations and European Union have placed the figure at between 3.5 -5 million people.
In the heart of Ukraine’ capital Kyiv, the government has built a memorial by way of a museum in commemoration of that atrocity that has come to be known as the Holodomor Massacre.
Since 2006, Holodomor has been recognised by Ukraine and 33 other UN member States, the European Parliament, and 32 of the 50 states of the United States as a genocide against the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet government.
Coming from this history, Ukraine believes that to deny Ukraine its economic capabilities which comes through selling its food to the world is an aspect of that Russian familiar tact as it wages its war.
Officials describe it as a tact of sabotaging Ukrainian trade by disabling its ports that are a link to the world. And that has affected supply of grain and other commodities to the world, including Kenya.
Already Kenya’s government has cited Russia’s war on Ukraine as one of the causes of reduced grain supply in the country, now felt by mwananchi by way of expensive unga.
President Volodomyr Zelensky, at an interview during this visit at his office in Kyiv, spoke about the need for Africa to understand that the push by his government to have Russia to respect the Grain Initiative that was signed in Turkey in July 2022 was for the benefit of Africa as well and not only for Ukraine.
“That initiative allowed us to transport 32 million tonnes of grain to parts of the world, including Africa. After Russia saw that the deal was good to us, benefiting us, it started thinking about withdrawing from the deal,” said Zelensky. “ In my recent meeting with presidents from six African countries that came here, I insisted that as soon as Russian withdraws from the deal, grain will no longer leave our ports and prices of food commodities will skyrocket by 200-300 per cent.”
The value of the Odesa ports to Ukraine’s trade overseas remains key even as Russia plays its cat and mouse war on it. Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure said in a statement that even during the war, the countries of the world that benefit from Ukrainian sea ports owing to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, included emerging powers such as China which has received 8 million tonnes. Others are Spain 6 million tonnes and Turkey 3.2 million tonnes. Besides that, another 42 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe received grain through the Odesa ports.
Russia’s interference therefore disrupted such volume of supply during the ongoing conflict. But after temporary traffic routes had been declared, the main export destinations received less grain than before where China received 2.1 million tonnes, Spain 1.4 million tonnes and Egypt 0.5 million tonnes. Through the temporary routes, Ukraine was able to deliver to 16 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. The ministry did not however reveal the countries.
Odesa is also an important cultural centre with several UNESCO sites which have suffered from Russia’s brutality. On January 25, the UNESCO Heritage Committee named its historic city a World Heritage site and included it to the World endangered heritage sites. That was in recognition of Odesa’s influence on cinema, literature, and the arts.
The Russian military has not spared this soft side of Odesa. In July, it launched its missiles that shelled some Odesa museums, including the Odesa Archaeological Museum, the Odesa Maritime Museum and the Odesa Literature Museum, UNESCO official have claimed.
Odesa has recorded 28 civilian deaths and more than a 10 injured between February 2022 and September 2023 as a result of the Russian strikes, with much higher numbers of casualties in the larger Odesa region.