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Roaming to Ukraine: from the frontline against illegal hunting to the frontline of an illegal war.

Back in early 2022, Protect the Wild was contacted by a member of the Roaming Sabs who asked if we could help provide a grant towards a vehicle – a vehicle which was going to be driven from Manchester right across Europe into a war zone to help animals! While we typically fund monitor groups or animal rescues here in the UK to protect and support wild animals, the plans were so remarkable we felt we had to act.

The full story – in two parts – is being told here for the first time. We’ve been asked to withhold the author’s name – and not to call him a hero. As he said to us, “All of us who do things to help animals are just doing what we’re able to do”.

We’ll leave readers to be the judge of that…

 

Doing Something

On the 24th of February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, killing thousands and displacing millions.

I’m out with the Cheshire Hounds but also following the news, watching videos of helicopters launching missiles at apartment blocks and tanks firing on cars full of civilians trying to evacuate. War has returned to Europe.

My blood is boiling. I’m thinking “What can I do?”. I have to do something, so I set a plan in motion that would see me at the Ukrainian border just two weeks later.

I spend the next few days frantically searching for information through all the noise. Finally I find a contact who is coordinating humanitarian aid from Europe and beyond in a warehouse in Lublin, in the southeast of Poland. The aid then gets shipped out to Ukraine in organised batches depending on what is needed and where (military equipment to the frontlines, humanitarian aid to Kyiv and Lviv, generators to hospitals etc). I’m given a list and set out to collect the needed supplies, funds for my fuel, and take a month off work to go and do what I can.

On the 13th of March, I hit the road on the 1,327-mile journey from home in the north of England to Lublin, expecting it to take around 23 hours of total driving time.

On the evening of Tuesday March the 15th I reach a warehouse with trucks, vans and cars from all over Europe coming and going every 10 minutes, loading and unloading as quickly as they can, with a small army of Ukrainian, Polish and other volunteers running around sorting everything out.

I sign in and am allocated a slot to unload the supplies I’ve brought – “Tomorrow at 9 am” – so I hunker down in the van for the night and make the most of my rest time, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

 

March the 16th – the work begins

In the morning I wake up and get ushered into the warehouse. I park up, unload and then drive my van back outside. I grab a high viz vest and spend the next two days helping with the loading and unloading, sorting and repacking.

Then my attention turns to the Ukrainian border some 122km/70 miles away. I hear that there are problems with transporting the millions of refugees coming across into Poland. The makeshift camps set up in sports halls and community centres are overflowing, so I leave Lublin behind and head for the Hrebenne crossing point.

I find a nearby refugee centre in a local gymnasium and it’s a scene I never thought I’d witness in person. Rows and rows of pop-up beds and suitcases everywhere, families with their entire lives crammed into what bags they could find and carry. Noticeably there are only women and children present, as military age men are unable to leave the country.

After signing up at the front desk and announcing I had seven seats available to transport people to Warsaw, people started clawing over each other to try and get a seat. Eventually after going through an intense police check of both my credentials and my van, we load up and head for Warsaw train station and airport.

The drive is mostly silent, people trying to sleep, possibly for the first time in days, and as we get into Lublin we make a quick stop at what would soon become a regular break on the road between the border and Warsaw. A makeshift village has been created by locals at the motorway service station, loaded full of supplies any refugees might need. Pampers, baby food, hot and cold food and drinks, clothes, medicine, sim cards and even wheelchairs and prams…all donated by the local community and free to anyone who needs it.

One thing that has stuck with me is one of the women in our group looking very panicked. I ask what’s wrong and if she needs anything and she just says “Siren”. I’m confused for a moment and then realise she can hear the high-pitched whine of a truck fan in the distance and thinks it’s an air raid siren. Suddenly their suffering becomes very clear. I reassure her that it’s not a siren and that she is in Poland now. She is safe. We get back in the van and the other refugees in our group comfort her as we set off on the last stretch of our journey.

After dropping off all but one elderly woman who was going to the airport and didn’t speak a word of English, we finally arrived and I handed over her bags. She reaches out to hug me and simply says in broken English “I am lucky for have you” and walks off.

 

Late March and Coronavirus

The next two weeks are spent in a similar vein, driving between the border and various cities in Poland. One morning I notice I am feeling a bit run down. I put it down to driving many hours and decided to take a morning of rest in Warsaw before heading back.

Gradually I got worse and remembered I had some Covid tests in the glovebox – POSITIVE.

I can’t ethically carry more refugees and risk infecting them. I decide to find a service station out of town and self-isolate in my van in the hopes it would go away in a few days. Some of the people at the refugee village at the services near Lublin hear about my situation and come to drop off a care parcel for me with food and medicine. Community spirit through and through.

After a day of isolating, I make the decision to drive home (still isolating of course!), as hopefully I’d be in a better state by the time I got there to then return, and luckily that’s exactly what happens! I get back, test negative, load up with a second round of supplies as well as a batch of herbal medication from the Solidarity Apothecary and head back out to Poland for my remaining week and a half of leave.

 

 

From Poland to Romania

On my way back I make a very poignant stop at the Auschwitz camp in Poland, to remember what the world went through. Not even 100 years ago, and we are right back there again.

A short time later I get a phone call from a guy called Tom from Breaking the Chains, an animal rescue team operating inside Ukraine helping rescue abandoned pets and injured animals from the front lines. He asks if I would be willing to join them inside Ukraine as they urgently need drivers. I agree, but tell him I only have a short amount of time left to stay.

With that, I drop off my supplies in Lublin again, and make my way to Siret in Romania, to meet Breaking the Chains and head back into Ukraine.

After a 15 hour drive that takes me through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and then into Romania, I arrive in Suceava where I meet up with Tom and the team. Some new equipment and vehicles have just arrived so we each get given a set of keys and a vehicle to drive back into Ukraine.

First though we make a stop at a local farmer and priest who is letting us use one of his barns to store donated food and equipment and load up our vans with supplies to bring in with us.

Then comes the interesting part, crossing the actual border. Passports and vehicle documents at the ready, border guard soldiers check both myself and my vehicle. With my passport freshly stamped, I head off on the 6.5-hour drive to Vinnytsia on roads that make our countryside roads seem brand new. God bless suspension!

Around 20 minutes into the drive, the vehicle radio switches to air raid sirens and a Ukrainian voice urging everyone to find the nearest bomb shelter. Undisturbed we carry on, going through various military checkpoints, checking our passports and vehicles and the soldiers cheering when they realise we are British.

 

Vinnytsia, Ukraine and a surprise request!

We eventually arrive at home base in Vinnytsia, a lovely city in central Ukraine that seems to be trying to continue life as normal where possible.

Our compound is an old car garage with concrete floors and single brick walls, no windows or heating and one light…cold and damp comes to mind! Some wood panelling had been erected to create some semblance of rooms as well as makeshift dog kennels in the main part of the building to house injured animals or animals needing some form of care and unsuitable for transport.

After a long day I make some food on the camping stove in the makeshift kitchen and go to bed, knowing the next day will be a busy one.

My first day I’m on transport duty, taking a group of rescue dogs to Romania for onward transport to Cluj Napoca, and again on the way back collecting more animal food and supplies to bring back…a long 14-hour day.

Then I get asked a question I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be asked; “Do you want to go and help out a zoo in Northern Ukraine that has virtually no staff left?”

I point out that I only have a few days left before I need to return home for work, but I can absolutely help out for that time.

 

Cleaning up, mucking out and generally getting stuck in

The next day at 3am we set out to head for the 12 Months Zoo in Demydiv, North of Kyiv. Not 24 hours earlier this zoo had been occupied by Russian soldiers who had set up a base inside it for the last six weeks (if you remember the 40-mile-long Russian tank column coming in from Belarus. the zoo was on that road.)

Driving through Kyiv was an interesting experience. I’ve never seen a more locked down city…checkpoints and sandbags everywhere, soldiers and tanks on closed bridges and air raid sirens ringing out.

Once we reach the North of the city, we are met by the zoo owner and a military escort to take us to the zoo. As the area has only recently been liberated there is an acute risk of explosives, traps and landmines in the area.

We eventually come to a long queue of traffic heading North. This is caused by the only river bridge in the area having been blown up by Russians in their retreat, meaning we have to use a makeshift pontoon to get over.

Luckily our military escort gets us straight through the queue and over. We arrive at the zoo not long after and are shown around.

It was a privately owned zoo with around 500 animals, mostly rescued in one way or another, and just five remaining members of staff. Naturally it is closed to the public and they have no gas, water or electricity save a large generator they run for two hours a day. They are also running out of feed for the animals, and the enclosures are in a bit of a state as there are not enough staff to properly clean and maintain them.

We set straight to work and start cleaning up, mucking out and generally getting stuck in wherever we are needed.

So much work left to do

As the days pass, with my leaving day looming closer, I am aware there is so much work left to do, not just at the zoo but in Ukraine in general. I start turning my focus to my next move.

I also find that the pontoon bridge we had crossed days earlier has washed away, meaning we are stuck at the zoo for the foreseeable future! I take the tough decision to quit my job back home and focus my efforts on Ukraine full-time.

With the pontoon bridge washed away, we are also unable to get our planned supply drop, meaning we will be living on rations for about five days before supplies of food (for both us and the animals) will get through and out to us…I never thought I’d be so happy to see a pot noodle!

 

 

The following two weeks are spent at the zoo, three of us helping out wherever we can with cleaning, building, feeding and more cleaning. We even clean a rhino and a hippo, and hand feed wolves! Unreal moments I never in my life thought I’d experience.

One particular day stands out, as it so clearly brings home to me exactly what is happening, and what the Ukrainian people are going through, just for existing.

We hear a series of explosions go off throughout the morning. We’re told that EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) are clearing unexploded bombs and mines in the area until midday.

Around 2pm we hear a loud explosion that shakes the doors and windows. We all wonder what has happened, but brush it off as more work from EOD.

Later that day the Ukrainian staff all seem very despondent and we ask why. Turns out the 2pm explosion we heard was caused by two kids going to the local youth club to get a board game (as the electricity was still gone). It had been trip-wired by Russian forces.

They triggered the wire when they opened the door and were killed instantly.

 

Bucha and a sense of intense sadness

After just over two weeks at the zoo, and with staff slowly returning, we say our goodbyes and head back to Vinnytsia, onwards to the next task – but not without our new friend Sergey, a German Shepherd pup who had been abandoned at the zoo by evacuating locals. He bonded with me and as the zoo had no space for him, we take him back to base with us and he soon becomes my best friend!

 

 

A mischievous little rascal I still miss every day, but he has now been adopted to his forever home in the UK and is living his best life.

Our route back takes us through Bucha, where the mass murder took place of Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war. At the entrance to the suburb, we are stopped at a heavily militarised checkpoint and handed leaflets detailing what to look out for as there may still be unexploded mines and traps.

Russians left explosives stuffed inside teddy bears and toys for children to pick up, as well as in bin bags and suitcases.

 

 

The area itself is all but destroyed, burned out buildings and bullet-hole-riddled vehicles. A few remaining civilians huddle around a fire outside, and an aid point has been set up for food and necessities. A sense of intense sadness befalls us as we are there, knowing what took place not even weeks ago.

We come to the bridge out of Bucha and it is destroyed completely, so we have to once again use a makeshift one consisting of two metal girders across a ravine. As you can imagine the nerves kick in driving a large van over this, with little to no leeway on either side.

We make it across, very slowly, and are back on the road.

 

Going to an animal shelter in Oleksandriya near Dnipro

My return to base is short-lived, as an animal shelter in Oleksandriya near Dnipro had asked for urgent help with their 250 dogs. So we load up the vet trailer with medical supplies, and along with our American veterinary volunteer we take a van full of dog food and the trailer loaded with medication to the shelter, ready for three days of cleaning, feeding and vaccinating.

Upon arrival the air raid sirens are already going, and we realise this particular shelter is right next to a military base. We have a bit of a “Well, this could get interesting” moment, but we turn our focus to the work at hand and block it out of our minds.

We have three days to vaccinate and parasite treat 250 dogs, some of which are free roaming and some which need other veterinary care as well. The rest of us get on with cleaning out every kennel one by one, which has clearly not been done in a very long time as some of the muck and waste is actually hiding pallets underneath. We even set to fixing up some of the kennels which have fallen into disrepair.

 

A mission to Kramatorsk to evacuate dogs

Towards the end of the first day I get a phone call saying I am needed for a mission to Kramatorsk to evacuate some dogs from a shelter under constant threat of bombardment.

I spend the night sleeping in the van down the road (as the road to the shelter is so damaged that large vehicles simply can’t come down it) and around 5am the second convoy of vehicles come around the corner. We transfer some dog food from my van to one of the Kramatorsk bound ones, I jump in and away we go on our 6-hour drive to Kramatorsk.

Upon arrival we find a makeshift shelter created in what looks like an abandoned factory, with dogs chained up along the wall in dark industrial buildings. We set out to unload the food and start setting up all the folded cages we have brought with us.

Just as we started unchaining dogs to load into cages, a barrage of missiles come down in the city causing loud bangs and shockwaves that can be felt for miles around.
We rush the last dogs into cages as quickly as we can, including a large group of puppies that had been abandoned at the shelter just a few days earlier.

The staff all have a very emotional goodbye to their beloved animals and thank us profusely for coming – all the while more bangs can be heard in the distance.

Without any further delay we load up 42 adult dogs and the puppies, getting out of the area as quickly as we can and heading back for Oleksandriya. We arrive after dark and make arrangements with a local shelter where we still have a team. They take the healthy dogs we have rescued and we take their sick and injured ones back to base to provide them with medical care at our own onsite vet clinic.

 

Back home, another quick turnaround, and nine lions.

After a long three days, we finally say our goodbyes to the shelter staff in Oleksandriya and head back to base, where I have a few days off before returning to the UK to sort out some of my own affairs now I am staying out here long term.

My time at home was cut short however as I get a phone call from TJ, one of the ground team, who said he was on his way to the UK to collect a large truck that we would be driving back.

A couple of days later, a large military MAN HX60 pulls up outside my house, ready for the long drive back. We load up, say our goodbyes and set off back to Ukraine, ready for the next mission.

On our way through Germany, we get a call advising us of the next job; extracting nine lions from a zoo in Odessa at risk of shelling! All I could think was “Wow, is this real?” as we divert course to Siret again, this time to meet the remaining ground team and set off towards Odessa for the mammoth job ahead…

 

 

 

Part Two of ‘Roaming to Ukraine’ is coming soon. In the meantime, please support the ongoing work of the Roaming Sabs against illegal hunting.