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Odesa maintains some normalcy despite Russian aerial assault on southern Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russia has increased its aerial assault on southern Ukraine recently. It's been firing missiles at areas outside of the Donbas, hitting food storage facilities in the city of Mykolaiv. And just hours ago, at least 21 people were killed and dozens were injured when Russian missiles struck a residential tower and recreation center just outside the city of Odesa. NPR's Peter Granitz reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: The sun and the beach has a red skull and crossbones warning of landmines laid to prevent an amphibious landing by Russians. That doesn't stop a dozen or so people from hopping the fence to catch the sun on a beautiful, hot afternoon. One of them is an older man named Vasiliy (ph). He doesn't give us his last name. He says he's a little embarrassed for breaking the rules.

VASILIY: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "Sometimes I worry," he says. "Sometimes I don't. If I worry all the time, I should live in a bomb shelter." While he may sound carefree, others are frustrated. Slava Biletzky has a beer in hand as he takes in the beach and waves.

SLAVA BILETZKY: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "People are tired from the war," he says. "People want to live their normal lives." Volodymyr Dubovyk is the director of international studies at Odesa Mechnikov University. He says Russia's desire to capture Odesa is cultural, historic and economic.

VOLODYMYR DUBOVYK: Odesa is very important to their psyche. I mean, for their understanding of the Russian world, you know, in Ukraine, there's no place but Odesa.

GRANITZ: The city is Russian speaking. Its port made it one of the biggest cities in the Russian empire, and many Russians vacationed here and did business here before the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANITZ: A couple takes wedding photos in front of the sandbags fortifying the city's 19th-century opera hall. A street musician plays for tips nearby, and a young mother holds her baby on a bench. Fragrant roses ring the empty fountain in the theater's garden. Across that garden is city hall. It's where we meet the Russian-speaking mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov.

GENNADIY TRUKHANOV: (Through interpreter) The occupiers' task is to take Odesa but save as much of it as possible.

GRANITZ: Including the port, which has been idle since February. It had been Ukraine's most active seaport before Russian warships blockaded any exports from leaving. Trukhanov himself has a history with Russia. He was in the Soviet army and then served in Ukraine's Parliament as a member of the Kremlin-aligned Party of Regions. But he says if Russia were to invade Odesa, the city would know he's on Ukraine's side.

TRUKHANOV: (Through interpreter) So my position, I had it. I have it and I haven't changed it. Odesa is a Ukrainian city. Odesa is the most patriotic city in Ukraine.

GRANITZ: Russia's goal, Trukhanov says, is to choke off Odesa from the rest of Ukraine.

TRUKHANOV: (Through interpreter) They will try to surround Odesa, to block it from the sea with their warships. If they manage, but I'm sure they won't, to take Mykolaiv then go on to Transnistria, and they'd begin fighting from there, it would let them cut Ukraine from the sea.

GRANITZ: Mykolaiv is a city on the front lines of the war 80 miles to the east. Russia continues to launch missiles into its residential and industrial areas, including its port. And Transnistria is a Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova to the west. There are about 1,500 troops there, but Ukrainian military sources say they're ill-prepared to launch any real assault on Odesa. There has been no ground fighting in Odesa, and the missiles that target the city are rare.

Two hundred thousand people left the city early in the war, but many came back. And the war and the port closure are negatively affecting the city's economy. Still, its relative safety has attracted 20,000 displaced people, though the mayor says the real number could be more than double that. Every day, hundreds of them line up at a converted school in the central part of town. It's now a place for people fleeing the east to get food and clothes.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANITZ: A young boy points to the shelves of donated toys. He asks for a bulldozer and gets it. Marina Semeniuk is the volunteer coordinator for the local NGO called Hospitable House, which runs the site.

MARINA SEMENIUK: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "We don't call them internally displaced people. We call them our guests," she says, "because we hope there will be peace and we'll rebuild and everything will be good."

Tanya Lavrenchuk and her two kids fled Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine in April. They chose Odesa because her mom was here. Tanya was able to find housing and a job because she remained in Ukraine. She doesn't need any new work permit or to learn a new language like she would have if she fled the country. Her kids have adapted.

TANYA LAVRENCHUK: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "This is an adventure for them. They're happy," she says, which is good because she doesn't think she'll ever return home to the Donbas.

The city has an enormous food market. It's a complex several city blocks big. Rows and rows of sellers hawk vegetables and flowers outside. There are entire halls full of cheese and fish stands.

(SOUNBITE OF KNIFE BEING SHARPENED)

GRANITZ: It's the end of the day, and a customer negotiates the price of a piece of pork with a butcher.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: A pork seller named Valentina Shchehol'tzova says business has not really slowed down since the war began.

VALENTINA SHCHEHOL'TZOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "Thank God things are normal for now," she says. "I hope they'll be normal always."

Peter Granitz, NPR News, Odesa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Granitz