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Kramatorsk’s Ria Lounge was full of people when the missile hit.
The evening rush had just begun and the popular pizza restaurant’s usual crowd of locals, families and journalists were settling down for dinner at the last restaurant still open in the city.
When war comes to a city like Kramatorsk it changes everything.
Streets that once bustled with life fall quiet as residents flee to safety or retreat to their basements. Shops and cafés are shuttered as a discomfiting stillness descends, broken only by air raid sirens and stray dogs howling in chorus, or the occasional thunder of missiles finding their target.
After long enough, everything begins to degrade.
Those who stay become furtive and subdued. Eventually they lose access to electricity, fuel and water. Darkness begins to creep in and hope becomes more desperate.
When I first arrived in Kramatorsk in April it was a night like many that have become the city’s new normal. It was dark and quiet. A thick haze hung in the air, blowing in from the fires in Bakhmut where a battle was raging just a few miles away.
Yet there it was, Ria Lounge, shining in the gloom like a tiny sapling finding its way through the frozen earth in the spring. As the waitress set the table, my friend Paul Conroy told me it was like a shelter in the storm – and it was.
Tentatively stepping inside the bar, I witnessed life finding a way. There was music – and atmosphere. Young waiters and waitresses weaved back and forth between tables while patrons – some locals, some journalists, some off-duty soldiers – mingled and ate.
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For a moment, I thought I could have been anywhere or even back home in London. I was swept up in the normality of it all; tempted into forgetting what was happening outside Ria’s doors as I caught a momentary glimpse of what life had been like in Ukraine before the war.
Over the following weeks, I would become just one of many journalists who had traipsed through Ria since the war began and, as I began to recognise faces, befriended a few of them.
Night after night, I would debrief with John Sweeney, Paul and Zarina Zabrisky after a day’s filming. Each morning, we would order eggs and coffee, and field requests for rides to neighbouring villages from other reporters. Monika, a waitress there, began to remember our order and brought us the same pizza each night. John, in a half-joking attempt to get around the frontline’s ban on alcohol, would ask with a glint in his eye for wine he knew they wouldn’t serve.
The patrons of Ria made for a unique community. Journalists who had spent the day in Chasiv Yar and the outskirts of Bakhmut would trudge in after a hard day’s work, the mud on their boots evidence of the risks we were all taking to report what was happening on the eastern front. Families would meet there and children would play in the crèche. With no functioning hotels so close to the frontline, Ria was the only place to socialise and meet and work with others.
So many journalists have been through its doors, if you’ve read a story about the battle for Bakhmut or the Donbas, there’s a good chance it was written at one of Ria’s small tables or in a booth on the shisha terrace.
That was all taken away yesterday, in a direct hit on the lounge by a Russian missile designed to destroy military ships, not people.
The restaurant was full at the time. My friends in Ukraine say an unknown number of people have been killed, including 10 members of staff who were just 17 and 18. At least 25 more are injured, including journalists who are being treated for head injuries in a nearby hospital.
Videos of the aftermath now flooding social media show in excruciating detail the devastation wrought by the missile. One clip shows bodies on the ground and a mother coddling a baby, no older than two, receiving first aid on a table.
In another video, a young woman, a Ukrainian journalist, is lifted covered in blood from a table I had eaten a barbecue meat pizza at just months before. I often wondered, sitting in Ria, eating and chatting alongside friends and colleagues, what would happen if the Russians made it to Kramatorsk. It’s a small city of no more than 140,000 people. There is no military infrastructure there, just civilians doing their best to make it through a punishing war and keep hold of what hope they can. Russia attacked it anyway, extinguishing an ember that flickered bright in the dark.
Caolan Robertson inside Ria earlier this year
This is the reality of the war in Ukraine.
This attack on a bustling pizza restaurant, one of the last places where life could still feel like life, is what Russia does. It’s what it continues to do.
When I arrived that doleful night in Kramatorsk, Ria felt like an enclave, somehow protected by its spirit and the spirit of the people in there from the war outside its doors. As I write this, there are still people trapped under the rubble and calling desperately for help. It will take hours to pull any survivors out.
Ria’s loss is a stark reminder that, when war comes to a place like Kramatorsk, there is nowhere to hide. There are no real shelters in the storm.