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Monday, 2 November 2015

Sinister Catacombs of Odessa: the Lost Girl

Everybody knows about the Parisian catacombs, but the sprawling lesser-known maze beneath Odessa harbours a notoriety which continues to this day.

Urban exploration is a burgeoning pastime among young people and archaeologists who fancy themselves as Howard Carter types. E&G staff have been known to dabble in it during work hours, counting a Victorian swimming baths in Bristol as one of our favourite haunts.

Catacombs, however, are a different animal entirely. The Odessa tunnels in Ukraine span three levels, cover a staggering distance of 2,500 kilometres and have 1,000 (known) entrances.
So large are the catacombs, in fact, that they haven’t even been fully mapped.
Starting out as an isolated series of limestone mines in the 19th-century, local smugglers began connecting them in a macabre game of dot-to-dot that would eventually claim lives.

It is very difficult to convey in words just how dauntingly expansive a 2,500 kilometre network of tunnels is, especially when they often lead nowhere or double-back on themselves. Resembling enormous black bronchi (see map at top), the tunnels are arid and stifling; they provide no bearings or signposts for the lost.

Which compounds the tragedy of the case of a 19 year old girl who wandered, perhaps while intoxicated, into one of the entrances after having been to a New Year party in 2005. She was only discovered four months later by urban explorer hobbyists after police, having been informed that the girl was missing, refused to enter the catacombs should they suffer the same fate. One story has it that she was initially with a group of friends when she entered the tunnels and ran ahead to scare them. It was said that they went a different direction, and never saw her again. 

Despite the government having attempted to seal the known entrances in 1980, others are frequently being discovered. Along with explorers, the catacombs have become popular with derring-do teenagers and archaeologists who are intrigued by its history as a hiding place for civilians and officials in WWII.

The body of the lost girl, named Masha, was recovered two years after her disappearance, in 2007. Based on where her body lay it is believed she spent three days wandering the catacombs, trying to find her way out, before perishing of dehydration. Her case serves as a reminder of the dangers the catacombs of Odessa continue to pose to the carefree or ill-prepared. 

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