When I was in Kramatorsk, a city in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, in August 2022, I could see from my windows a giant blue and yellow Ukrainian flag in the nearby Central Park. In August 2023, I had my windows boarded up with particle boards, a rather figurative shield from blast waves and shrapnel.
Kramatorsk, a city of about 150,000 before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, has been the administrative center of the Donetsk region since 2015 when Russia occupied the city of Donetsk. It sits on a road from Sloviansk in the north to Druzhkivka and Kostiantynivka further southeast, all very close to each other and often regarded as a single urban agglomeration. All have faced occasional bombing at the hands of Russian forces.
The farthest town is about a 20–30-minute drive to Toretsk, New York, and Bakhmut, some of the hottest conflict zones since October and November 2022 when the Russian forces withdrew from the Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson.
During the last year and a half, Russian forces hit Kramatorsk in its most crowded civilian spots twice — something rather unusual even for this bloody invasion. In April 2022, a Russian rocket landed at a railway station in the city where about 4,000 people were waiting for evacuation, leaving 61 dead and 121 wounded. In June 2023, the largest and the most popular hang-out place in Kramatorsk, a pizzeria in the city center, was destroyed by a targeted rocket attack that killed 12 civilians and an undisclosed number of military personnel.
Like almost all the other places in Kramatorsk, the pizzeria closed after the beginning of 2022 but reopened later that year. As the first shock of the invasion faded away and the new war realities became more or less clear, some new cafés and shops emerged or replaced others following the changing demands. There are more men in uniform and military cars in the streets of Kramatorsk now than civilians, although the locals say that many people who fled the city in early 2022 are slowly coming back. These days, shops selling military clothing and gear seem to be more frequent in Kramatorsk than anything else.
Alcohol has been banned in the region since mid-2022 to avoid drunken incidents involving men with arms. Numerous desperately outdated sign boards remain, advertising alcoholic beverages in restaurants and shops — those closed as well as still operating — regularly puzzle newcomers. Alcomarket, a vast chain of liquor stores in Ukraine, now sells water and soft drinks in Kramatorsk. As often happens with administrative bans, the illegal trade thrives. “I learn from military men in which shops I can buy vodka,” a taxi driver told me.
Air alerts are endless in the city, so, unlike in other areas, the staff of supermarkets, shops, and cafés never force visitors to leave in the event of an air raid siren (most businesses and public institutions in Ukraine, unless they are operating underground, are required to make visitors leave as quickly as possible, suspend their services, and close the facility until the alert ceases, to avoid mass casualties in case of a strike). The city is now dotted with small concrete bunkers installed near public places like railway stations and bus stops.
It is a challenge, however, to find a specific place if you're not a local, as you can no longer rely on maps. Throughout the entire country, and especially in places closest to the frontline like Kramatorsk, streets have been renamed, and old restaurants and shops are still shown as working, even as they have been closed and destroyed long ago. The new ones are not marked.
Revolut, an international online banking service, blocked all operations with its card in the area — a common move in early 2022 as many businesses believed that Russia might soon occupy the entire region and they would find themselves operating under Russian control, thus responsible for breaking anti-Russian sanctions. Other international online services like Booking.com and Airbnb have also paused services there, making it hard to find a place to stay overnight, especially as the demand remains high because of families and friends coming to visit military personnel in the region. The biggest hotel in the city neighbors the ruined pizzeria and is heavily damaged itself. The alternative platform where locals post their items for rent or sale, including apartments, does not offer an option to mark availability on any given dates and evaluate a property and owner, so even after investing a lot of time to find a vacant place, you can never be sure whether you will end up in a clean and comfortable apartment or a dirty pit run by a psychopath.
The Tato Hub, a community space that worked to encourage local men to spend more time with their children (tato means “dad” in Ukrainian), became a busy volunteer hub in 2022. Volunteers engaged and entertained the remaining local children, distributed humanitarian aid, and evacuated people from conflict hot spots like Bakhmut and Soledar.
In 2023, it saw an increase in children visitors, including locals who returned to the city as well as those who came to visit their fathers from elsewhere. With schools and kindergartens closed throughout the city, and its streets remaining too dangerous — or too hot in the summer — to play, the Tato Hub is nearly the only place in Kramatorsk for little ones to spend time and find friends, said Olena Kurtova, a day-care assistant and art teacher in a kindergarten now running regular activities for children in the Tato Hub.
Olexandr Ivanov, one of the Kramatorsk dads who launched the Tato Hub initiative, said that it feels safer in Kramatorsk now than a year ago when the Russian forces occupied the nearby parts of the neighboring Lugansk region and part of Donetsk region in the north, and were proceeding southward towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk from occupied Lyman and westward towards battered Bakhmut, creating a widespread sense of uncertainty and panic.
With the local tension calming down, both domestic and international aid and volunteerism have slowed to a trickle. Japan, US, and New Zealand nationals, who became local celebrities while engaging in the Tato Hub last year, left the same year, with the Japanese man now fighting for Ukraine. Sergiy, a man from Kyiv who drove a shattered minibus evacuating people, died of an untreated illness soon after. There is no humanitarian aid anymore as the donors switched attention to places suffering more, like Kherson in the south of Ukraine, which was liberated in November 2022 but has been shelled by the Russian forces almost every day since then. For many in Ukraine, the entire east of Ukraine remains an area where locals have divided loyalties and are hence to blame for the war. For the pizzeria tragedy, a 57-year-old local man was accused of coordinating the attack.
Olexandr from the Tato Hub points, however, to a local cemetery where, like everywhere in Ukraine, a separate section for military graves emerged in 2022. Sergiy, the evacuation bus driver, lies somewhere in the civilian part of the same cemetery. In the emptied Kramatorsk, as well as the entire emptied Ukraine, cemeteries are currently the single sector of guaranteed growth.