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Alcohol bans in Ukraine have led to a whisper network among those seeking a drink

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the last month, a lot of people in Ukraine have thought to themselves, I sure could use a drink. Well, now they may be able to get one. Although the sale of alcohol has been prohibited during the war, NPR's Tim Mak reports some regions are easing the restrictions as the conflict drags on.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: It's a common scene in many Ukrainian shops. You enter, look around and see empty shelves. Some stores take off entire sections or turn off the lights in others. But in this case, it's not due to shortages. After gaining new powers under martial law, many local officials banned the sale of beer, wine and liquor. The ban has hit stores already reeling from the economic calamity of war.

TOLIK: (Through interpreter) Since it's a store that sells alcohol, 60% of it is alcohol.

MAK: That's Tolik, a 21-year-old worker at the store Wine Time in the Rivne region in the northwestern part of Ukraine. The store sells - you guessed it - wine. But it also sells imports like sriracha hot sauce from California and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Though the store he's working for is struggling, Tolik still sees the wisdom of the bans.

TOLIK: (Through interpreter) Many people have weapons now. Someone can drink alcohol, get drunk, take a machine gun and go protect others. That's bad. The ban is right.

MAK: But among those still seeking beer, the bans have led to an underground whisper network among friends. Oh, I heard this region or that region might be lifting restrictions soon, or, oh, I found this gas station selling a few beers. After almost a month in Ukraine, I happened to be passing through the town of Vinnytsia on the day that local authorities lifted the ban on alcohol sales.

(CROSSTALK)

MAK: Our small team of NPR journalists descended into this dimly lit basement bar in the center city. It smelled like whiskey and had a Jack Daniel's poster hanging on the wall even though the shelves were bare and they weren't selling any.

(CROSSTALK)

MAK: Oleg, our bartender, laid out the options - a local Ukrainian lager, a berry cider or a shot of Jagermeister. That was it. The night started as a joyous one - old friends gathering in shouts of, glory to Ukraine, over drinks.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Artyom, who was curious about the English-speaking reporters that descended on his neighborhood bar, came over to talk. He's a Ukrainian with Russian heritage dead set against the war. And he says he wants the war over as soon as possible, but he wants to find a silver lining.

ARTYOM: (Speaking Russian).

MAK: Through Google Translate, he tells me in Russian that he wants the war to end with a Ukrainian victory and a better standard of living for all. He says he doesn't want to fight. He doesn't want to kill. And as the night goes on, he begins to reflect. He said he had been a Ukrainian sharpshooter in eastern Ukraine several years ago. He talked about how, back then, he held his teenage friend in his arms as he lay wounded from shrapnel with parts of his face blown off. Artyom paused and took a long slog of a cider. He told us graphic details about the injuries and how his friend died two days later.

We left the bar around 9 p.m. to make it back to our hotel before curfew, and I realized stories like Artyom's - stories about war and trauma - are only going to be more common as the war grinds on and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are wounded and killed. Bars like this one, the one we visited in Vinnytsia, are going to be some of their common homes. Tim Mak, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEROY AND THE DRIVERS' "THE SAD CHICKEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.