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Children, grandparents and cats: all seek refuge from the war in the oldest monastery in Odessa

Some families leave their elderly sick, too weak to flee, others bring their pets. The monastery Archangelo Mikhailovsky it has become a refuge for the most vulnerable, even before the war reaches this southern Ukrainian port.

The large blue monastery with its gold and gray domes, dating from the early 18th century, is situated not far from the sea, in a neighborhood exposed in case of Russian attack. Many people in the neighborhood have already fled since the start of the Russian invasion.

Both kind and authoritative, the person in charge of the monastery for 30 years, Mother Serafim, is facing this unprecedented situation. Her voice reflects concern when she alludes to the flow of new pensioners.

Three generations of women are waiting to flee Odessa. Photo: AP

“Some hundreds of people have already taken refuge since the beginning of the war in the monastery, which also houses a hundred nuns“explains the orthodox nun.

“But unfortunately we can’t welcome everyoneand we also have money problems,” he says, referring to the problem of The domestic animals that have been entrusted to him – more than 150 cats since the beginning of the Russian offensive – and that must be fed.

The benefactors of the monastery, residents of the neighborhood, have preferred to leave the place. Food is missing. And the reserves are going to run out fast.

In the dining room, about 15 people have lunch, mostly old women dressed in black, but also some families with children, a nine-month-old baby, a grandmother with her three grandchildren ages 14, 11 and seven.

The mother of these minors works during the day and joins her family in the monastery at night. They have had to leave their home because they felt very isolated and threatened by the oppressive atmosphere of war that is getting closer and closer.

“I know Mother Serafim well, I often come to pray here, and it is the first place that came to mind” as a refuge, says Yeliena.

Security forces assemble sandbags in the streets of Odessa.  Photo: Reuters

Security forces assemble sandbags in the streets of Odessa. Photo: Reuters

In the rooms facing the corridor, silent old men and women lie motionless in their beds.

“We are a big family, we try to support each other, and prepare for peace. But if the war comes, we will be powerless” continues Mother Serafim.

Putin, the “criminal”

“We pray for peace” adds the nun. Suddenly, in a sudden torrent of words, she gets angry and criticizes Vladimir Putin, the “diabolical”, the “fascist”, the “criminal”.

“Putin has committed a sin that we can neither forget nor forgive,” says the nun, alluding to the “Armageddon” unleashed by the Russian president.

59-year-old Mother Serafim was born in Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, to a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother. She arrived at the age of 10 in Odessa, a mostly Russian-speaking city.

“I was born in Russia and, for me, what happens it’s a personal matter” it states.

The city of Odessa, the main port of Ukraine, is a strategic and symbolic goal for Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that Russian forces were preparing to bomb it.

The Church of Ukraine was recognized as independent in 2018 by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, provoking the anger of the Orthodox Church of Moscow, which denounced a schism and broke its ties with Constantinople.

By Cécile Feuillarte, AFP

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