FEATURE: Cats, dogs on front lines in Ukraine

AFP, SARTANA, Ukraine

Thu, Mar 17, 2016 - Page 6

They fight rats, depression and even serve in combat roles — dogs and cats have turned into a prized companion for fighters on both sides of eastern Ukraine’s separatist war.

In Sartana, a suburb of the Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol that remains Kiev’s main stronghold in the conflict zone, two purring cats live alongside hardened government soldiers who face daily threats at the front.

The pets were rescued from pro-Russian rebel shells that fell on the nearby flashpoint village of Shyrokyne, devastated and almost abandoned by its 1,000 residents.

“We and the cats have a win-win relationship,” said machine-gunner Pavlo, a 28-year-old archeologist from Kiev who was forced to stop work on his doctoral thesis after the insurgents revolted in April 2014, while stroking his furry friend.

“Cats are a domesticated animal. Where there is a cat, everything is alright,” he said.

The conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 9,200 people and driven more than 1.5 million from their homes. A series of periodic truces have helped quiet some of the war’s biggest guns, but increasing exchanges of fire and mines scattered throughout the conflict zone claim lives of civilians and soldiers almost daily.

For soldiers like Pavlo, any sign of the long-forgotten joys of normal life is cherished, with the pets around them treated like royalty.

A large black dog that has been given the nom de guerre Gilza (Bullet Shell) was cuddled up at Pavlo’s feet as he spoke.

“Dogs are also an irreplaceable assistant,” Pavlo said. “They work like an alarm when there is a threat. That is because they hear and see much better than people do. They warn us whenever the enemy nears.”

A military medical attendant who only provided his codename, Rodon, treats cats like irreplaceable colleagues, as they help fight the spread of infectious diseases by hunting rats and mice.

However, Rodon said that the animals’ greatest value comes from the morale boost they invariably give homesick soldiers.

“They are like an anti-depressant — they lift your mood,” he said.

“You call them, and a whole swarm of them come running your way. And you immediately feel better,” said Rodon as a dog licked some food from his palm.

Besides soldiers, Rodon also treats dogs.

“We brought back many dogs from Shyrokyne who were abandoned by residents fleeing the shelling,” Rodon said.

“When they all suddenly fell ill, I treated them with antibiotics and made them drink vodka,” he said, referring to a tipple renowned for being the antiseptic of last resort.

On the other side of the front line, a 40-year-old rebel who is known to his fellow separatists as Turok (the Turk), commands a squadron on the outskirts of the insurgents’ de facto capital, Donetsk.

He proclaims himself a sworn enemy of Kiev’s forces, but loves animals in much the same way as his opponents.

“We have a lovely German Shepherd that decided to live with us at the very start of the war. She was abandoned by the locals, but she recently died when she stepped on a mine. All she left behind were her puppies,” Turok said.

They have been kept in a pound to prevent them from running off to the front, where live exchanges of fire occur daily, accompanied by the periodic use of heavier weapons.

“We call the red one Praporshchik [Warrant Officer] and the black one Mayor [Major],” Turok said.

However, Pavlo refuses to christen his cats.

“I do not want to give them any names associated with the war. I will name my kitten once I take him home” to Kiev, he said.