Bucha, 30 March 2023 – One year ago, Russian troops left the town of Bucha, Ukraine, and the world was shocked by the massacre of civilians there. Today, a local market is slowly trying to get back to business amidst somber remnants of the past. In stark contrast to the burned-out shells of nearby kiosks destroyed by artillery or tank fire, a bright and colorful children’s bookstore stands out among the destruction – a rare haven of discovery and imagination run by its cheerful owners, Iryna and her husband Mykola.
“Many of our regular customers have left, many are staying abroad. But those who return to Bucha, come to us. It is such a joy to meet again. Many of those who are abroad contact me [online], and I even ship them our books,” says Iryna.
A year ago, as fighting continued, Iryna feared she would never be able to welcome customers again in her shop. She and her family made the difficult decision to flee, leaving behind their beloved house that they had built after previously being displaced from the Chornobyl area in 1986. While they sought safety in the European Union, Iryna and her husband learned from the market director that their shop had been shelled. Luckily, it was not fully destroyed, but it sustained significant damage.
“I had already said goodbye to my shop. But my son told me: ‘No, mama, you cannot do this!’”
Shortly after the Government of Ukraine regained control of Bucha and other areas of northern Ukraine that had been under the military control of the Russian Federation for over a month, Iryna and Mykola felt safe enough to return home.
The efforts to reopen the shop paid off, at least mentally. “It might not be the most lucrative business, but it saved us. If it was not for our shop, I do not know how we would survive now. This is our soul. Our children and grandchildren left. And here, after all, it is still a life,” Iryna explains.
When the country endured a period of extended electricity cuts due to Russian attacks on critical infrastructure in autumn and winter, people started buying books. “The war dictates the interests,” says Mykola. “Many customers are asking for Remarque now,” referring to the German war novelist and author of the international bestseller, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
The shop also has a second-hand section where people can bring their books to sell. This includes an entire collection of books that survived their owners.
Amidst painful memories, Iryna is thinking about the future. She plans to rent an adjacent kiosk and expand their business. Her son and daughter had shown her a call for micro-business grants from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Government of Germany and helped her develop a presentation of her needs and ideas.
With the funds received, she purchased a new smartphone, a laptop, furniture for the expanded shop, books to replace those that were lost, and an air conditioner that also works as a heater. “Now it will be warm in our bookshop, and we are looking forward to welcoming children to the free reading club that we used to organize before the war and that we would like to resume.”
“When reading children’s books now, you perceive them totally differently than when you were a child yourself,” Iryna shares, explaining the secret of her passion for her business.
As for her own favourite book, she immediately points to “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreae, on a shelf near the cashier desk.
Gerald, a giraffe, wanted to dance but could not. After being teased by other animals, he felt very sad and left the party where they all gathered. On his way home, he met a cricket who played the violin. “Excuse me!” coughed the cricket, who had seen Gerald at the party. “But sometimes when you’re different, you just need a different song.” The cricket began playing the violin and Gerald started dancing! The other animals were fascinated: “How did you learn to dance like that? Please, Gerald, tell us how.” But Gerald simply twirled around and finished with a bow. Then he raised his head and looked up at the moon and stars above. “We all can dance,” he said, “when we find music that we love.”
Within the project “SME Boost: Economic Integration of Internally Displaced Persons and Business Recovery” (December 2021-May 2024), funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through the German Development Bank (KfW), more than 700 enterprises in Ukraine will receive grants between EUR 4,500 and 20,000 to revive and boost business throughout the country. Additionally, the project engages the Ukrainian diaspora to support the recovery of the country and of enterprises through skills development, business support, and access to finance, networks and markets.
Text by Varvara Zhluktenko, photos by Alisa Kyrpychova, IOM Ukraine