Wanderers in Ukrainian trenches provide respite for troops suspicious of Russia
As Russian troops mass and the specter of war hangs over the trenches in eastern Ukraine, soldiers in the shelters have found solace in the unlikely company of stray cats and dogs.
In a muddy and icy trench near the town of Avdiivka, 21-year-old Ukrainian soldier Mykyta petted a dog adopted by the troops as he explained how she had become a valuable asset on the front line.
“She barks or growls immediately if the enemy prepares an attack. It’s safer and calmer with her. No wonder a dog is said to be man’s best friend,” he said. told AFP, refusing to give his last name for security reasons.
More than two million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes and many pets have been abandoned after fighting began in 2014 between pro-Moscow separatists and the Kiev army.
The conflict, which has claimed 13,000 lives, has smoldered in recent years with only sporadic reports of escalation and military deaths in eastern Ukraine.
But that has changed recently with Western allies in Kiev accusing Russia of building up tens of thousands of troops around Ukraine’s borders in preparation for a possible invasion.
These tensions are at the center of intense negotiations this week between the United States, NATO and Russia in Geneva and Brussels, with the two sides accusing the other of exacerbating the tensions.
“The animals are not to blame, the war is,” said Volodymyr, a 49-year-old soldier, who also declined to give his last name for security reasons.
An AFP journalist said about 15 cats and several dogs had taken up residence with the military in the section of the Volodymyr trenches.
“They were abandoned. They had to fend for themselves. We have to feed them,” Volodymyr said, pouring the leftover soup for the cats.
– Puppy ‘Talisman’ –
After spending months on the front lines with their adopted wanderers, some soldiers ended up bringing their new comrades home, away from the fighting.
In the basement of a bomb-damaged house where he sleeps while at the front lines, 29-year-old soldier Dmytro, meanwhile, raves about his black hunting cat, Chernukha.
“When winter came, the field mice were running around the canoes,” Dmytro said.
“She caught them all,” within two months, the young soldier with the shaved head proudly told AFP.
But this was not the first time that a pet had intervened during the war, he said.
Dmytro told AFP that in 2014 he befriended a one-month-old puppy near the then-hotspot town of Slavyansk. He said the dog quickly became a “mini-talisman” among his fellow soldiers.
A few minutes before the start of a bombardment, he recalls, the dog hid. “We quickly took the same measure as the dog,” says Dmytro with a smile on his face.
We “grabbed bulletproof vests, helmets” and “ran”.
With tensions higher now over fears of invading Russia, soldiers say the animals have been a particular boon, helping them relax and providing respite from their daily routines.
“You come back to the station, lie down on the bed and here is Chernukha,” Dmytro said.
The cat “lies on its stomach and looks at you as if it wanted to be petted”.
“It’s a sedative,” he said.
stringer-ant-osh / jbr / yad