Mon, 11 Dec 2023

CHILIA VECHE, Romania -- Some 60 percent of the water of the Danube River flows along the Chilia Branch as the river splits into narrow fingers through the Danube Delta before running into the Black Sea.

But while barges and cargo ships line up to enter the busy Ukrainian ports of Reni or Izmayil, on the Romanian side of the Chilia Branch maritime activity is nearly zero. Only pleasure craft, fishing boats, and the occasional passenger ship dock here.

A cow grazes on the Romanian side, with a Ukrainian port visible in background.

This quiet corner of Romania has seen activity diminish further recently due to repeated Russian kamikaze drone strikes targeting Ukrainian ports across the river, and apparently sometimes slamming into Romanian territory, and the nearly constant thrum of Ukraine-bound shipping, which locals say has affected fishing here.

Although Romania's Danube Delta as a whole is popular with tourists, most holidaymakers head for other, more picturesque river branches through the delta. Along all 111 kilometers of the Chilia Branch, the number of guesthouses numbers around a dozen. Most of those are in Chilia Veche.

A container ship enters the Danube from the Black Sea with a Ukrainian Coast Guard escort in July.

'It's really a fishing destination,' Alexandru Ceaus Timur, the mayor of Chilia Veche, said. 'Fishermen will head out regardless of rain, storms, even war for their hobby.'

But many fishermen have in fact been scared off by the recent drone strikes on the Ukrainian ports across the river. According to the mayor, tourism numbers in Chilia Veche are down in 2023 by around one-third compared to previous years.

The drop in tourism numbers is confirmed by staff of the Talianu Pension in Pardina. In the middle of the fishing season this summer, they say, many reservations were canceled following the first strikes on Izmayil port, just 5 kilometers away, in early August.

A building in the Ukrainian port of Izmayil damaged by a Russian drone strike in August 2023.

After a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain to be exported through the Black Sea fell apart in July, Russia vowed to treat any ship in the Black Sea transiting Ukraine's deep-water ports as a military target. Since then, millions of tons of grain and other supplies have been shipped from Ukraine's Danube River to ports in neighboring Romania, and from there to the rest of the world.

As a result of the massive increase in river traffic shuttling to and from the Ukrainian river ports, Romanian fishermen say fish in the water have been spooked.

'Since they started loading more in the Danube ports, you can't throw the net out in the river because the ships are coming through,' said Marius Tanase, a fisherman and farmer from Plauru. 'Even when you do cast it's not the same anymore, because the ships are passing all the time and scare the fish.'

Two men prepare to fish across the Danube from the port of Izmayil on September 5.

The prices however, are good. Fishermen can get 20-25 lei ($5.40) per kilogram for carp, catfish or sole -- around double what the fish sold for in recent years.

But the only fishery factory in the area is in Tulcea. If Tanase wants to sell his catch, he has to make an almost 100-kilometer round trip by boat. Before the war and the subsequent increase in shipping, Tanase claims around 50 kilograms of catch was common. Now less than 20 kilograms are being hauled out each day.

A map showing a no-fly zone along the Chilia Branch. Romanian authorities say drones spotted flying in the area will be shot down.

The infrastructure in this area is limited. Tulcea and Chilia are connected by a 70-kilometer road that takes about three hours to traverse. On the water, the only connection between the two towns is a passenger ferry that departs just three times a week and makes the trip from Tulcea to Chilia in 4 1/2 hours.

There is, however, one spiritual initiative that has taken shape recently that has a small impact on the economy here.

The monastery near Ceatalchioi

On the edge of Ceatalchioi, a monastery is slowly taking shape. Everything is done with the labor of three nuns and a few monks directly involved in its construction.

In 2010, when the monastics first arrived, there was only a church here. In 2011, they began work on the 13-room building, which is already liveable.

'I was driven by the thought that a congregation would gather at the monastery. For now, people rarely come here because we are not officially recognized yet, but we definitely believe people will come,' said Mother Paisia, the abbess of the monastery.

On land alongside the monastery there is a miniature zoo with ostriches, pheasants, peacocks, and dozens of beehives. Among the sources of income for the monastery are candles, honey, and ostrich eggs.

Mother Abbess Paisia shows an ostrich egg painted at the monastery near Ceatalchioi.

Ioan Macra, a teacher at the school in Ceatalchioi, told RFE/RL that 'the population here is mostly retirees. Most of the young people have left the country, many are truck drivers.'

Even if they returned, he said, 'they wouldn't have much to do apart from raising animals, but even here they would encounter many difficulties.'

Bomb shelters in Plauru

In Plauru, some of the only activity to happen in recent days is the construction of bomb shelters built after several apparent drones strayed into Romanian territory during Russian strikes on nearby Ukrainian ports.

SEE ALSO: The Romanian Ghost Village Where Air-Raid Shelters Are Being Built After Russian Strikes On Ukraine 

Bucharest has said it will send additional troops to the area, and that locals will receive notifications on when to take shelter in the event of any future attacks.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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