In a city where damaged buildings are everywhere, a destroyed pizzeria stands out as a painful reminder of lives and livelihoods erased in an instant.
A Russian ballistic missile hit the popular restaurant in eastern Ukraine in June, killing 13 people, including an award-winning Ukrainian writer and several teenagers. Seven of the victims were employees.
Now, fresh flowers and notes have been placed where the entrance once stood. A T-shirt that was part of the waiters’ uniform hangs near the makeshift memorial, reading “We will never forget.”
“As a businessman, of course I regret the loss of property, but there is something that cannot be returned: human lives,” says Dmytro Ihnatenko, owner of RIA Pizza.
The bombed building in Kramatorsk highlights the enormous risks for traders in this frontline city in the Donetsk region. But that hasn’t stopped many other merchants from reopening their doors to customers over the last year.
The city’s legislative chamber estimates that 50 restaurants and 228 stores are currently open in Kramatorsk, triple the number of establishments open at the same time last year. It is believed that the majority are establishments that already existed and closed at the beginning of the war, and have now reopened.
“We understand that it is a risk we are taking because this is our life,” says Olena Ziabina, manager of the White Burger restaurant in Kramatorsk. “Wherever we are, we need to work. We work here. This is our conscious choice.”
The White Burger chain operated mainly in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions before the war. However, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it was only able to reopen in Kramatorsk. Two restaurants were opened in the capital, Kiev, and in Dnipro, to keep the chain operating
The Kramatorsk restaurant has the best performance in the chain in terms of profitability, although prices are 20% lower than in the capital’s restaurant.
After the attack on RIA Pizza, White Burger operators did not consider closing the Kramatorsk restaurant, according to Ziabina. “I cried a lot,” he says, remembering the day he found out about the attack.
Kramatorsk’s economy adapted to the war. The city is home to the regional headquarters of the Ukrainian army, and many cafes and restaurants are frequented mainly by soldiers, as well as journalists and personnel from humanitarian organizations.
Ukrainian women often travel there to meet up for a few days with their husbands and boyfriends.
The soldiers joke that Kramatorsk is their Las Vegas, providing all the “luxuries” they need, like good food and coffee. But restaurants only offer non-alcoholic beer, due to the city’s proximity to the battlefield.
The city’s streets are almost entirely empty, except for military vehicles. Residents who remained avoid large crowds and crowded places.
Still, long gone are the early days when Kramatorsk’s shops, restaurants and cafes were all closed. Tens of thousands of people were left without work, and factories closed.
“Probably, thanks to the military, we can still return to this city,” says Oleksandr, who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.
He is a co-founder of one of several military stores in Kramatorsk that serve soldiers. Oleksandr says that he prices just 1 hryvnia (14 cents) above the manufacturer’s price. He says the goal is not to make money, but to provide the military with necessary equipment.
Many residents celebrate the new job opportunities brought by the reopening of stores and restaurants.
But there are fewer options for older people, says 54-year-old Tetiana Podosionova. She worked at the Kramatorsk Machine-Building Plant for 32 years, but the factory was closed due to security risks when the war began.
“I had hoped to work at the factory until I retired,” says Podosionova. Most jobs these days are in stores and restaurants, where she has no experience.
She eventually found a job at the Amazing Fish Aquarium, which resumed operations a few months after the war began. The aquarium has hundreds of exotic fish and dozens of parrots, and remains open to distract residents, often stressed by missile attacks.
Each reopened business, however, brings risks. Ihnatenko, the owner of the pizzeria, still goes to the destroyed restaurant every day when he is in Kramatorsk. He doesn’t know how to explain it. He looks tired. His voice is little more than a whisper.
Like many other businessmen, he considered the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in the neighboring Kharkiv region a sign that life could return to Kramatorsk.
“It felt safer here,” he explained, standing in the rubble of his restaurant.
He has no plans to rebuild and reopen again.
His tragic experience highlights the challenges business owners face in keeping their doors open.
“A missile could come at any time,” he says.