‘It’s striking how much life here goes on as usual’

Guy De Smet (56) lives with his family in Odessa. For Knack, he keeps a diary from his home town at war, where life goes on as usual.

Wednesday 21/09 Mobilization

Putin announced mobilization in Russia this morning. The Ukrainians are not impressed. They think Putin’s moment is over. They are determined never to be dominated by Russia again.

I spoke to a young Russian today who I know through work. I asked him if he was not afraid of being summoned. He told me that he belonged to the military reserve, but that he would manage to escape. “If they give me a gun, I will not shoot at the Ukrainians,” he promised. “I’d rather go to jail.”

Thursday 22/09 No shame

All morning I have seen pictures of Russians from the province being mobilized and taken away in vans. I feel sorry for them. They are poor fools who hardly seem to realize what is happening. I find that I am completely alone with those feelings. The Ukrainians have no pity. They have really come to hate the Russians. ‘When our children are murdered and raped, you don’t listen to the Russians,’ my friends tell me. “They only protest when their own children have to fight.”

We had another alarm today for the first time in five days. Russian fighter jets had been spotted over the Black Sea, appearing to fly briefly in the direction of Odessa. Apparently they changed course soon after. It strikes me that there are far fewer Russian planes flying over the Black Sea than in the past. In recent months, there have been constant false maneuvers that have set off the alarm. Not anymore.

Friday 23/09 Drones

While I was at the hairdresser this afternoon, there was a sudden shot, followed by a loud bang. Apparently, anti-aircraft defenses have shot down a Russian drone over the old harbor a kilometer away. The barber did not even look up from his work. “Won’t you go and see what that bang was?” I asked him. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not done with your hair yet,” he replied. The undisturbedness of the Odesites is impressive.

Guy De Smet © National

A total of six drones were shot down today: three over Odessa and three over the Black Sea. They are Iranian drones, equipped with a camera and an explosive charge. It is not clear what Russia wants to achieve with these drones. It is a new thing: these attacks have only started since we came back. Still, it wouldn’t have changed our decision to return. It’s remarkable how much calmer I am here than when I was still in Romania. I assume nothing bad will happen.

Saturday 24/09 New nursery

These days I check every morning to see if I see any ships lying off the coast. If they’re there, I’m fine. These ships are part of the air defense system. If they’re not there, it usually means they’re shooting down a drone somewhere, and therefore there’s danger. They were still there this morning.

I must say that I was impressed by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s speech at the UN yesterday. You can feel that the West no longer panics when the Russians threaten. Meanwhile, they realize that Putin is bluffing. I don’t see how Russia will arm and feed all those soldiers. So now it will immediately throw that mess into the fight.

This afternoon, a new nursery was opened in the block of flats where we live. There was a small party. I think it’s a great shame that there are Odessites opening a childcare center in the middle of a war. My wife thinks it’s completely normal again: ‘What else can they do?’ You are on your own pretty quickly in Ukraine because there are few social facilities.

This now has the positive effect of everyone following his plan. In recent years, many young entrepreneurs have started their own businesses. Ten years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable: as soon as your coffee shop had a bit of success, it was taken over by a corrupt state parasite. Blackmail was the national sport here. Sure, sometimes they run into the wall, but it’s no longer because of corruption. I am very excited about that. It gives me hope that this country will recover from the war.

Sunday 25/09 Closure

We went for a walk in the park. Suddenly the siren sounded in the distance. When they hear the sirens, Odessans here always do the same thing: they check their phones to see what’s going on. Then they write to friends at one of the many roadblocks to ask what’s going on. Is it a drone or is it a plane? After two minutes we got an answer: some planes had been seen over the Black Sea. It’s the sign for everyone to relax: false alarm.

I ran into a friend today who I hadn’t seen in seven months. He told me he had been armed at such a roadblock for the past few months. It was, of course, partly a clever idea. At the beginning of the war, many men volunteered to man such a checkpoint. After all, if you’re at a checkpoint, you’re home and you might not be called up to fight at the front.

For the rest, it is striking how much life in Odessa goes on as usual. The shop shelves are full, the terraces are full, there is wine and American rib-eye steak. It is so obvious that sometimes you forget that this country is at war.

Monday 26/09 Augusta

Because of the drone attacks, we are keeping our daughter away from school for a while. She liked it at first, but gradually she starts to miss the daily contact with her friends.

At first, Ukrainians were very critical of President Volodymyr Zelensky. They thought he should go much further with the counter-offensive. They have already come back from that. I have the impression that Zelensky listens carefully to the Americans and lets his army command make the decisions. The military’s confidence is unprecedented. Valeri Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, said last weekend: ‘We have eliminated Russia’s professional army. Now it’s the turn of their unprofessional army.’

When this war is over, Ukraine will need billions to rebuild. Europe must not only send money, but also inspectors. If a project worth 100 million euros is approved here, there is a good chance that around 30 million will ‘disappear’. And yet we will also have to trust the Ukrainians and give them the freedom to do their thing.

The Ukrainians I talk to about this remind me that corruption also exists in Europe. “What is Agusta?” an Odessite asked me a few days ago when we talked about corruption. I didn’t have that left.

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