With Russian troops crowded and fears of war in the trenches of eastern Ukraine, soldiers in the dugout find solace in the unlikely companionship of stray cats and dogs.
In a muddy and freezing ditch near the town of Avdivka, 21-year-old Ukrainian soldier Mykita nursed a dog adopted by soldiers as she described how it had become a valuable asset on the front lines.
Refusing to give her surname over security concerns, she told AFP: “She immediately barks or growls if the enemy is planning an attack. It’s safe and calm with her – no wonder they say that a The dog is man’s best friend.”
More than two million Ukrainians were displaced from their homes and many pets were abandoned after fighting between pro-Moscow separatists and Kiev forces in 2014.
The conflict, which has claimed 13,000 lives, has only narrowed in eastern Ukraine in recent years with sporadic reports of escalation and military deaths.
But that has changed recently when Kiev’s Western allies have accused Russia of building tens of thousands of troops around Ukraine’s borders to prepare for a possible invasion.
Those tensions are at the center of intense talks this week between the United States, NATO and Russia in Geneva and Brussels, with both sides accusing each other of escalating tensions.
“The animals are not to blame – there is war,” said 49-year-old soldier Volodymyr, who also declined to give his last name, citing security concerns.
An AFP reporter said about 15 cats and several dogs had taken up residence with the soldiers in Volodymyr’s trenches section.
Volodymyr poured out the leftover soup for the cats, saying, “They were released. They had to defend themselves. We have to feed them.”
After spending months on the front lines with their adopted dogs, some soldiers have begun to take their new comrades home away from the fighting.
While he sleeps in the basement of a bombing-damaged house, 29-year-old soldier Dimitro, meanwhile, is full of admiration for his black hunting cat, Chernukha.
“When winter came, the rats in the field were running around the dugout,” said Dimitro.
“He caught them all,” within two months, the young soldier with a shaved head told AFP proudly.
But this was not the first time a pet had intervened during a war, he said.
Dimitro told AFP that he became friends with a one-month-old puppy in 2014 near the then Flashpoint town of Slavyansk. He said the dog soon became a “mini-talisman” among his fellow soldiers.
A few minutes before the start of the shelling, he remembered, the dog had gone into hiding. “We took a dog-like measure very quickly,” said Dimitro with a smile on his face.
We “grabbed a bulletproof jacket, helmet” and “run away.”
With fears of Russian invasion now more tense, soldiers say the animals have been a special boon, helping them to relax and bring relief to their routines.
“You come back to the post, lie down on the bed, and here comes Chernukha,” said Dmitro.
The cat “lies down on your stomach and looks at you as if it wants to feed.”
“It’s a sedative,” he said.
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