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'A missile can come at any moment': Ukrainian businesses defy uncertainty despite looming threats

A soldier attends a military shop in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.
A soldier attends a military shop in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Copyright Hanna Arhirova/AP
Copyright Hanna Arhirova/AP
By AP
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Despite the ravages of war, businesses in Kramatorsk, a front-line city in Ukraine's Donetsk region, are displaying considerable resilience.

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In a city where damaged buildings are everywhere, a destroyed pizzeria stands out as a painful reminder of lives and livelihoods dashed in an instant.

A Russian ballistic missile struck the popular eatery in eastern Ukraine in June, killing 13 people including an award-winning Ukrainian writer and several teenagers. Seven of the victims were staff.

Today, fresh flowers and notes have been placed where the entrance once was. A T-shirt, part of the waitstaff’s uniform, hangs near the makeshift memorial with the inscription “We will never forget”.

“As an entrepreneur, of course, I regret the loss of property, but there’s something that cannot be returned: human lives,” said Dmytro Ihnatenko, the owner of RIA Pizza.

A woman looks at the debris of the destroyed building as she walks by one of the city's popular restaurants, RIA Pizza, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.
A woman looks at the debris of the destroyed building as she walks by one of the city's popular restaurants, RIA Pizza, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.Hanna Arhirova/AP

The bombed-out building in Kramatorsk underscores the massive risks for businesses in this front-line city in the Donetsk region. But that has not deterred many other business owners who have reopened their doors to customers in the past year.

The city council estimates there are 50 restaurants and 228 shops now open in Kramatorsk, three times the number open at the same period last year. Most are believed to be existing business that closed in the early days of the war and have reopened.

“We understand that this is a risk, and we are taking it because this is our life,” said Olena Ziabina, chief administrator of the White Burger restaurant in Kramatorsk. “Wherever we are, we need to work. We work here. This is our conscious choice.”

A makeshift memorial where Russian forces struck a restaurant with an Iskander missile, killing 13 in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.
A makeshift memorial where Russian forces struck a restaurant with an Iskander missile, killing 13 in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.Hanna Arhirova/AP

The White Burger chain operated mainly in Donetsk and Luhansk regions before the war. But after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it could reopen only in Kramatorsk. It launched two new restaurants in the capital, Kyiv, and Dnipro to keep the chain alive.

Kramatorsk’s restaurant is the chain's top performer in profitability, even though prices are 20% lower than in the capital’s restaurant.

After the attack on RIA Pizza, White Burger's operators didn’t consider closing the Kramatorsk restaurant, Ziabina said. “I cried a lot,” she said, recalling the day she heard about the attack.

Kramatorsk's economy has adapted to war. The city houses the Ukrainian army’s regional headquarters, and many cafes and restaurants are frequented mainly by soldiers as well as journalists and aid workers.

Ukrainian women often travel there to reunite for few days with husbands and boyfriends.

Ukrainian soldiers eat at a restaurant, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers eat at a restaurant, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.Hanna Arhirova/AP

Soldiers joke that Kramatorsk is their Las Vegas, providing all the “luxuries” they need like good food or coffee. But restaurants offer only non-alcoholic beer due to the city's proximity to the battlefield.

The city streets are mostly empty except for military cars. The residents who stayed avoid big gatherings and crowded places.

Still, it is a far cry from the war’s early days, when Kramatorsk's shops, restaurants and cafes were shuttered. Tens of thousands of people were left without jobs, and factories were closed.

“Probably, thanks to the military, we can still come back to this city,” said Oleksandr, who asked to be identified only by his first name because of security concerns.

He is a co-founder of one of the numerous military shops in Kramatorsk serving soldiers. Oleksandr said he marks up prices by only 1 hryvnia (3 euro cents) above the manufacturer’s price. He said the aim isn’t to earn money but to provide the military with the necessary equipment.

New opportunities bring huge risk

Many residents cherish new work opportunities brought by the reopening of shops and restaurants.

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But there are fewer options for older people, said Tetiana Podosionova, 54. She worked at the Kramatorsk Machinebuilding Plant for 32 years, but the plant closed due to security risks when the war started.

“I had hoped to work at the factory until retirement,” Podosionova said. Most jobs are now in restaurants and shops, where she had no experience.

Finally, she found a job at Amazing Fish Aquarium, which resumed operations months after the war began. The aquarium has hundreds of exotic fish and dozens of parrots and remains open to entertain residents, who are often stressed from missile strikes.

Ihnatenko stands beside a wide hole left from an Iskander missile that Russian forces used to strike a restaurant in June, killing 13, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, 13 Sept 2023
Ihnatenko stands beside a wide hole left from an Iskander missile that Russian forces used to strike a restaurant in June, killing 13, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, 13 Sept 2023Hanna Arhirova/AP

But every reopened business carries risk. Ihnatenko, the pizzeria owner, still comes to his destroyed restaurant every day when he's in Kramatorsk. He doesn't know why. He looks tired. His voice is hardly above a whisper.

He, like many business owners, saw Ukraine's successful counteroffensive in the neighbouring Kharkiv region last year as a sign that life could return to Kramatorsk.

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“It seemed safer here,” he explained, standing in the rubble of his restaurant.

He has no plans to rebuild and reopen yet again.

His tragic experience shows the challenges that business owners face while keeping their doors open.

“A missile can come at any moment,” he said.

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