It’s bedtime and I glance down into the empty school courtyard beneath my bedroom window, then reach up to pull the long dark curtains shut. The air raid sirens started wailing a few minutes earlier, as they do several times each day, and like most residents of Odesa I paid them little mind.

Unsurprisingly, people’s dogs dislike the sirens and pace back and forth nervously at the shrill sound. I close the curtains to keep out any ambient light, but also to put a thin barrier between my face and any flying glass.

This charming city by the sea is a regular target for Russian terror attacks.

It’s a warm Sunday night and when I returned from getting dinner the old cobblestoned streets of central Odesa were much busier than usual. Global warming had given Ukraine a spectacular blood red display of Northern Lights and this event had brought people out into the streets to stroll with an ice cream, to listen to a pair of buskers, and to stare skyward.

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As I draw the curtains, there’s a massive, almost concussive blast and I instinctively turn away. The panes rattle alarmingly but don’t break. That I know, without thinking, that this was cruise missile and that it hit fairly nearby, should probably worry me. I also know these things fly at supersonic speed, carrying a thousand pounds of high explosive and that if one strikes my building, I’ll be vaporized before I hear the sound. Small mercies.

There are many ways to die, all unpredictable. Crushed under tons of cement and rebar; ionized by combustion; pierced by a scrap of metal knifing through the air… And all of them are stupid.

I consider going to the bomb shelter down the street, but assume that all this will be over soon and decamp to the bathroom with my Kindle, cellphone, and a bottle of water. Sitting on the toilet, there are the requisite two walls between me and the outside, maybe enough protection from a proximity blast.

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Then there’s another thunderous explosion, as close as the first one but in a different direction. Later I’ll learn that it hit the street in front of Odesa’s Fine Arts Museum. Texts come and go to and from friends around town, checking to make sure we’re all okay, accompanied by gallows humor and angry emojis spouting obscenities. I refresh my “X” page constantly in search of any news of additional incoming strikes. And there it is: a post reporting that Shahed “Martyr” drones are heading to Odesa.

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This is my cue to move to better cover, because while the suicide drones carry much smaller warheads than the missiles, the Russians send them in swarms to overpower the Ukrainian air defenses. These insidious weapons are slow and noisy, flying at the speed of the ancient canvas and wood aircraft from the First World War, which means you can hear them coming. As the two-stroke engines sound overhead, I hustle down the four flights of steps and into a short tunnel leading into the apartment courtyard for a bit of protection. A mother and her adult son are sheltering there too, and now and then the three of us stick our heads out into the street seeking some existential insight.

Immediately the Ukrainian army’s old German-made Gepard anti-aircraft batteries go into action and for an hour it’s like a scene from the movie Dunkirk. Search lights play off the clouds, heavy gunfire chatters maniacally, and the mindless drones, or at least some of them, explode and crash.

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A few people pass by on the sidewalks – foolish, fatalistic or fearless, who knows? An old man carries a plastic sack with his small supply of groceries. Then a pair of teenagers saunter past, arm in arm, lost in adolescent amour. Two guys with trash bags sprint frantically to a dumpster because, air raid or not, you don’t want to miss tomorrow’s garbage collection. Cars race down the street heading for home, tires screeching; one runs a stop sign and almost T-bones another.

Standing in the open-ended tunnel, my head swivels left and right, towards the courtyard or the street, trying to guess where the next threat will come from. Somehow it seems profoundly stupid to be killed by something coming from the direction I’m not looking, like being shot in the back. But there are many ways to die, all unpredictable. Crushed under tons of cement and rebar; ionized by the combustion of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon; pierced by a scrap of metal knifing through the air, barely slowing down as it hits you. And honestly, all of them are stupid. 

The madness finally ends, as all things do, bad or good, and I sleep. In the morning, I pass people on the sidewalk, and it seems to me they all look a bit glassy-eyed, as I imagine I do too. But with any luck, I will return home to the US before long while a million Odesans will stay right here. They will surely endure more such nights, with stress or fear or hatred, but they will endure.

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