To escape fighting, Ukraine moves firms to safety

·3-min read

By Elizabeth Piper

KYIV (Reuters) - Often as a fairy, sometimes as the Incredible Hulk and occasionally as a mad slime scientist, Ulia Pastushkova has spent her adult life building her kids' entertainment business in eastern Ukraine.

Over the past 10 years she has built up a stock of hundreds of costumes, puppets and props and a loyal customer base in her home town of Lysychansk. But as the Russian army advanced from the east, she feared her life's work would end up in flames.

She did not expect anyone to take her seriously when she put out an appeal on social media to try to save her business assets. So she was surprised when a fledgling government programme helped evacuate her fancy dress costumes and sound systems.

She lists the places where she entertained children on their birthdays before the war: Sievierodonetsk, which is now under siege, Svatove and Novoaidar, now occupied by Russian forces, and Zolote, Gorsky and her favourite city Rubizhne, which are under fire.

"I was worried about getting my costumes back, because I understood that someone will think that's it's not a serious thing. But it is my job, my life's work," she told Reuters from the western Ukrainian city of Lutsk where she is now living.

"I got my costumes back, thanks to Denis. He reacted quickly and understood where I was coming from."

She was referring to Denis Shemyakin, who gained experience in evacuating businesses from eastern Ukraine in 2014, when two Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region bordering Russia unilaterally declared independence in territory they held in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia also annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that year.

TWO STEPS

Running the "reform support team" at the economy ministry, his consultancy work all changed on Feb. 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine in what President Vladimir Putin described as "a special military operation".

Since then, cities, towns and villages have been destroyed and more than 4 million Ukrainians have fled their country. Many others, like Pastushkova, have moved to parts of the country they consider safer.

"After the 24th of February, we refocused and one of our key activities now is to help government and help small to medium enterprises to relocate to western Ukraine," Shemyakin said.

Originally from Lysychansk, Shemyakin and his team are concentrating on western parts of the Luhansk region and the Donetsk region, helping to move 12 businesses so far to safer parts of Ukraine. It is early days, but it is a start.

Often it is a two-step process - first transporting assets to somewhere safer and then considering where best to relocate the business. But time is of the essence and businesses need to move fast, as Russia steps up its attacks on Ukraine's east.

"When they get to safety, then they can move and relocate to a better place to live and to open their businesses again," he said.

It's a lifeline for Pastushkova, who now dreams of holding parties for children who have been evacuated.

"Now I want to help the children who left the same way I did. I would make them happy for free, so they don't cry and be happy instead," she said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Additional reporting by Stefaniia Bern; Editing by Alison Williams)

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