Zoia does not want to say the age. “It’s top secret,” she says. Behind him, the Black Sea. Around him, the beach taken by hundreds of residents of Odessa. There is a crane that moves the ground to loosen it. There are men who load their shovels with sand and throw it into bags. There are women who tie those bags and pass them to the human chain that forms from the shore to a truck.
-What are you doing here?
Zoia has a high-pitched voice and says “we are filling bags with sand”. She will be seventy years old, not much more, not much less. She wears a pink knit hat and a multicolored scarf. “These are bags that will be sent later to fortifications in different places in our city. I came to help, I have some ropes and with them I make the knot in the bags once they are full. I also open the bags for the volunteers to make it easier and faster for them to fill them with sand, ”she says, as she takes one of the bags and shows the movement.
Zoia is an English teacher at school and today, Monday, she will resume classes virtually. She will have students who have left the country, others who will connect from a shelter, others who have moved from the city. But they will all be together, even if it is through the computer, as if showing that they can bomb schools but not education. Something like that, I tell myself, they will think.
The spirit on the square is one of hubbub. A 26-year-old boy is bare-chested despite it being five degrees below zero. Some walk with a T-shirt. Others warmer. They all share the mission of fortifying the city.
“Ukrainians do not want war, we want to work in peace, we want to travel, we want to develop our relations with different countries. I am a teacher, I want to teach English in times of peace. AND I think Putin is wrong because he does not understand our feelings and our Ukrainian nature. Right now we Ukrainians are like one soul, one person. And you see it here: we must defend every little part of our land, we will not give it to anyone,” says Zoia.
-It reminds me of Churchill’s speech, when he says “we will fight in the streets, we will fight on the beaches”. Somehow here they are fighting on the beaches…
-The Black Sea is ours, this beach is also ours, Odessa is ours, Ukraine is ours. We do not want to be at war with any country, we are a peaceful country. Historically, Odessa was a multi-cultural and multinational city. Originally, more than ninety nationalities lived here. And now we are all Ukrainians, because we live here, we study here, we teach here. And if you ask around, you will see people from different professions: engineers, teachers, students, workers. Of everything.
“Didn’t you think about leaving the city?”
-Not because? It is my mother’s land, it is my birthplace.
Because it’s dangerous…
-Okay… My grandmother and grandfather suffered from fascism in World War II, and they also lived here, in Odessa. And now this crazy Putin fights against children, women, old people. He bombs hospitals, kindergartens, schools… Why? What did they do to him? Maybe he doesn’t see the situation the way I see it.
Do you think Odessa will survive?
-Of course, Safely. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but he will survive. Not only I think so: the teacher who taught me English is still alive and she is in Odessa. She is ninety years old. And she always calls me and tells me: “Zoia, don’t worry about it, everything will be fine”. We communicate by phone and help each other, with a phrase, with a warm word. That: we help each other. And so it will be among the people of each of our cities, large or small, not just in Odessa.
Nearby, walking around the property, Albert moves with a serious gesture. He is the owner of the property and offered it as soon as the war began. To get to the beach you have to go down a steep path towards the sea, cross a small yacht club, and reach the point of the place, where the sand begins. There is a long table set up with food where some volunteers serve soup and tea to the volunteers who assemble the bags. Albert says that it is essential that they eat, otherwise they would not be able to work.
-I imagine that this image, with so many people making defenses for Odessa, fills you with hope.
It is much more than hope. I am sure that Ukraine will win this war. Odessa was a multinational nation in the beginning, but today no matter what nationality you are, Odessa is Ukraine. And the people are united to sustain our fight against the enemy.
How long have you been here doing this?
-Two weeks ago we were loading sand to defend our city. We are doing our best. We have already made close to 100,000 bags. The weather conditions were very bad at times but there were still people. Every bag of sand is the life of a Ukrainian, and so we understand it. Every bag we make for our warriors is critical to the country.
-We know that there are Russian ships somewhere in the Black Sea. Aren’t you afraid of being on the beach?
Alberto smiles. He looks for complicity in Ludmila, who is translating him. “No, no”, he says, and completes: “We are not afraid”. I do not say anything. A few seconds later, he continues: “At first we were very scared, but after the first few days we lost it. Now we’re angry and determined, and even when there are mermaids here we still make bags. Odessa is not going to allow any Russian to enter.”
We greet you kindly. She offers us some soup and walks away from her. Behind him a new full truck is already on its way to distribute the bags around Odessa. The volunteers continue to load another van. The sand doesn’t seem to end. More and more white bags are covering the walls of history.
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