Peace in 2 Donbas cities lets people rebuild lives
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — As fighting raged for the city of Kramatorsk three years ago, Ivan and Elena Starozhuk spent days huddled in the basement of their house, surviving from day to day, with no thought for the future.
But peace has long since returned to this Donetsk Oblast city, some 540 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. And although it is located just 80 kilometers from the frontlines of Russia’s war on Ukraine in the Donbas, the couple says they feel safe there now.
Their thoughts of the future have returned: the couple got married on Aug. 15, and they are hoping to start a family in the next couple of years.
There has been no fighting anywhere near the city since July 6, 2014, when the Ukrainian army liberated it from occupation by Russian-led forces, and the Starozhuks don’t expect war to return to the city.
However, the war still affects them indirectly. Locals say prices in cafes and restaurants have increased since October 2014, when the city became the administrative center of Donetsk Oblast instead of Russian-occupied Donetsk.
The Starozhuks said they couldn’t afford a posh wedding reception in a restaurant, so they just invited some of their closest friends to the registry office and had a wedding photoshoot in a local park with wooden sculptures of fantastic beasts inspired by the paintings of Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko.
However, the Starozhuks also said life in Kramatorsk has got better in some ways. The city has built and new roads, playgrounds and parks, and repaired old ones.
And in many ways life in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — another big Donetsk Oblast city nearby, home to 113,000 people — is very similar to that in cities in other regions of Ukraine: People stroll through the streets at an easy pace, relax near the large fountain in the city center, and visit parks, cafes and movie theaters.
On the main square in Kramatorsk, Denys Ovcharenko, his wife Maryna, and their 15-year-old daughter Olga feed pigeons near the empty plinth of the city’s toppled Lenin statue. It’s rare for them to spend time together, because Denys, who works as a landmine clearer, only has a few days off every month.
The family lives in the outskirts of the city, and occasionally goes to the
center to have dinner in a local café, or goes to see a movie. On holidays, the family usually attends concerts held in Bernadsky Gardens, and in Pushkin Park, which is currently under reconstruction.
The 35-hectare Bernadsky Gardens is one of the oldest parks in the city. It was reconstructed in 2016 and since then most of the holiday celebrations in Kramatorsk have been held there. It’s also a popular place for families with small children, such as Artur and Yelisaveta Oliynyk and their two-year-old daughter Varvara.
The Olyinyks say they often visit Bernadsky Gardens, or the fountains near the city’s central square and city council building. They decided to have a child after the Ukrainian army regained control of Kramatorsk and the situation in the region stabilized.
The Olyinyks say there are few options for going out in the city with a kid, especially an active one like Varvara. The family’s favorite spots are the Yubileynyi amusement park and Pushkin Park, although that is currently undergoing reconstruction. On the weekends, the family often travels to a beach on the Siversky Donetsk River in Brusivka, 30 kilometers from Kramatorsk.
“Kramatorsk is a nice city, calm and well-kept, and a good one for young people,” Artur said.
Cafes and bars
Surprisingly, many of the cafes and bars in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are similar to those in Kyiv — at least in terms of prices, if not in quality and style. The cost of a main course varies from Hr 90–230 ($3.50–8.90).
Kramatorsk also has an Alchemist Bar — the namesake of a popular cocktail bar in Kyiv. The bar’s owner, Volodymyr Dushko, a native Denis Zhyzhchenko, 17, rides a quad bike in the center of Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast on Aug. 14 as his friends are watching. of Kramatorsk, started the business in his hometown around a year ago.
Locals says that lots of new cafes have popped up in Kramatorsk over the last two years. Some of them, like Kofilactika and Urban’s Café, have modern designs similar to Kyiv’s hipster venues. According to the city council, at least four cafes opened in Kramatorsk in 2017.
But families like the Ovcharenkos and Oliynyks usually go to fastfood restaurants, such as the burger restaurant Kryla, located in a heart of Kramatorsk, or go to a pizzeria, because “the prices there are fair and affordable,” Denys Ovcharenko said. He said his family loves going to more chic restaurants as well, but they can’t afford to go often because of the high prices.
Both families often go to Ria Pizza — one of the most popular places in town and the only one that works 24-hours. The pizzeria, which is busy even on weekday evenings, is located near another cheap and crowded place favored by young people — the Aroma Kava coffee shop.
However, a pricy restaurant with a terrace in front of the local cinema, called Rodina, is also packed with people. Many of them are volunteers and members of international organizations that provide humanitarian aid in the Donbas.
On the weekends, there are live performances by local musicians in Rodina, and DJs play sets in the Alchemist bar.
Nineteen- year- old Dmytro Ostroushko is a barista in the Prosto Kava coffee shop in Sloviansk. He said that despite the city having revived after its liberation in July 2014, there still aren’t many places for young people to hang out.
The outskirts of Sloviansk were heavily shelled in 2014, but in the city center there are almost no signs of war, apart from the abandoned House of Culture, which was badly damaged by shelling in 2014.
As in Kramatorsk, some new venues have opened in the last two years, including a modern barbershop and the stylish café Prosto Kava, where one can, as well as drinking coffee, also buy a handmade toy made by the café’s owners.
After work, Ostroushko often goes for a walk near the salt lakes that surround Slovyansky Kurort (Sloviansk resort) Park in the north-east part of the city. Slovyansky Kurort, which has several cafes and nightclub, is a popular entertainment spot for locals.
Ostroushko said that he is not a fan of clubs, and, unlike many local young people, he doesn’t like to dress up and hang out on the city’s main streets or central square after sunset.
Ostroushko also said cultural events for youngsters in Sloviansk are regularly put on by volunteers from the youth organization Teplytsia, which was founded in 2015. Teplytsya organizes movie screenings, music concerts and public discussions, along with various workshops.
Extreme sports fans can find options in both Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Paragliding from the Karachun hill between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk costs around Hr 400.
Back in Kramatorsk, a group of youngsters are doing wheelies on quadbikes and mopeds on the large central square.
One of them, 17-year-old Denis Zhyzhchenko, says that he started riding quadbikes for fun, but quickly got hooked, and now spends almost all of the money he earns from his part-time job on embellishments and extra parts for his machine.
The newly-wed Starozhuks are also fans of extreme sports — they both love skydiving and even wanted to have a wedding ceremony in a plane — and jump out together after exchanging vows. However, the plan didn’t suit the registry office workers, they said.
Instead, after their wedding the Starozhuks plan to go on honeymoon to the Bilosarayska Kosa beach resort, which is on a spit of land stretching out into the Azov Sea, south of Mariupol. They said they would return to their hometown after the trip, and don’t plan to move anywhere else.
“Of course, we love our city and want to keep living here. It’s our dear home,” they said.
People relax in the salt lakes that surround Sloviansky Kurort (Sloviansk Resort) Park in the northeast part of Sloviansk, a Donetsk Oblast city of 115,000 people that was occupied by Russian-backed separatists for four months in 2014 and liberated by the Ukrainian army. (Volodymyr Petrov)