Rosie goes to Ukraine: Separated

This mission is no ordinary mission. Other than transporting food and essentials to refugees in Ukraine, the plan for this trip is to bring back a total of 40 cats and dogs and to reunite some of them with their Ukrainian owners who are currently based in Germany and to find new homes for the rest of them. It will take them a minimum of 17 hours to drive back to Germany with these animals, no easy task by any means.

*Anna who is one of the Ukrainians hoping to be reunited with her dog and her cat, has offered to join us on this trip and to go back to Ukraine. Her and her family recently fled the terror unfolding in Kharkiv and have been staying in Germany for the time being. She is not only determined to bring her own animals back but she understands how Daniel, Patrik  and Mimi will need help doing this, especially since Patrik lives in the Czech Republic and Daniel and his girlfriend who is a videographer will still need to travel another 600 kilometers further to get to Munich. They could certainly do with the extra hands of handling 40 dogs and cats on a 17 hour car trip.

It’s now just after midnight and we have arrived in Ukraine. Soon I will be on my own. The plan is to drop all the food supplies off with the Chop Municipality, drop me off at a hotel, collect 40 dogs and cats and for them to be on their way back ‘home.’

This has been my choice all along. I could either make this a very short experience and go back with them on this trip or I could stay and make my own way back to Munich in time for my flight back home. I could follow through with my plan to meet individual Ukrainians, hear their stories; about their life before the 24th February 2022, their experiences of the war, of leaving the life they know and not knowing if there will be anything to come back to. Of escaping terror and making decisions about what to take and what to leave and what is really important and what is not? How did they get here, what was their journey like? How have they coped with the temporary life they are stuck in, how do they cope with the atrocities they have witnessed and experienced, will they go back if they can? Is there anything left to go back to? This is what I would like to know and what I’d like to share with you in the coming weeks.

I have no real plan, other than to be here and to go with the flow. I will meet many people along the way and see where this takes me, with my intention being that I’d like you to discover the story of war and the very people experiencing it. I want you to come on this journey with me, and feel close to it, even if you are on the other side of the world. I want you to get to know the Ukrainians and who they are. I want you to know war.

It’s an emotional goodbye for all of us. In the space of 48 hours, we have gotten to know each other and have become friends. It’s quite remarkable how in a short space of time, friendship comes easy despite our different backgrounds. We all have one thing in common, to support Ukraine in whichever way can. Each of us has the ability to do that in our own way, but ‘this minivan,’ is how we’d get there! We are a group of 5. One Israeli who spent much of his childhood in Russia, a Czech fitness specialist, a Dutch videographer, a Ukrainian refugee and a South African.

Anna who speaks little English, has been telling us her story and experiences of the war so far. She is from the city of Kharkiv and speaks Russian. Daniel has been translating for us. It is the first story of many to come.

I notice how she is well presented, dressed smartly and has applied make up and jewelry. She sits in the front staring hard at the road ahead, holding back the emotion bubbling inside her, the fear and uncertainty of what is still to come. She has just received news from the people who have been caring for her dog and her cat, that her cat has gone missing and will not be leaving Ukraine with her.  Here begins a story of ‘separation.’ Of being separated from the people (and pets) you love and the fear of not seeing them again. Her husband who is not of Ukraine nationality is stuck in the Eastern parts of Ukraine, unable to get to Anna and their young children. Her beloved cat has disappeared into the rubble of Kharkiv, traumatized and shaken by the constant bombardment of missiles. And then there is her sister and her sister’s family who lived near Mariupol. Anna’s words start to tumble out now, speaking faster and faster as the emotion inside her wells up, and cracks.

She does not know where they are, only that they have been taken to Russia.

Anna’s sister and sister’s family were meant to meet them on the way to Germany. But they never arrived. They waited 3 days for them and eventually had to make the very difficult decision to continue on without them. 3 weeks prior to this, she had spoken to her sister on the phone to find out how she was. She had been emotional and frightened at the time, traumatized by constant explosions and sounds of war and never knowing from which direction danger will come from next. There small community had been surrounded by Russian forces, spreading like liquid poison, seeping into every crack and crevice and destroying everything they come into contact with.

“I want to die, I can’t do this anymore, this is too much,” cried Anna’s sister.

“Then come with us” said Anna, “come with us to Europe. We will wait for you.”

But they never arrived. Anna and her children made the decision to continue on with their journey.

They did not hear from her sister for another 3 weeks. All communication in that area had been cut and calls are no longer possible. The silence was heavy, with fears of whether they are safe and whether they are even still alive.

Eventually that call came, and though it was a huge relief to know that her sister and her family are still alive, the news was not good.

They had been found and captured by the Russians and had been made to march through forests and fields of landmines.  They were then loaded onto a train, among many others at gunpoint and taken to Russia. It is from Russia that her sister called Anna to tell her what had happened and that they are no longer in Ukraine. The group of people who had been on the train with them were not with them anymore. They have all been sent to different locations so that they cannot communicate with each other. Her sister was vague with information, knowing that the call was being closely monitored and that she cannot give any information about her location or what is being planned for these Ukrainians or what is happening to them.

Listening to Anna, I soon realized how this trip was so much more than just fetching her pet/s. In a time of war, your human rights are lost, you become dispensable and you are one of thousands experiencing the trauma and terror of war. Where fairness and justice does not exist, where you live in fear from hour to hour and day to day. And you know that you and your family are just a number in the eyes of the enemy, that nothing can be done. And when it comes to your loved ones, you are often powerless when it comes to saving or helping them.

But this is the extraordinary thing I am discovering about Ukrainians. There are small victories everywhere by the way they are focusing on what they still can do and what can never be taken from them. Their human rights may have been violated, but ‘who they are’ as people is strong and is the very medicine that keeps them sane, that keeps them from falling apart, that allows them to nurture and care for one another through this time of crisis.

I realized that Anna was doing this; she was empowering herself by doing what she still can do. She may not be able to help her sister right now, but she can help her pets and other Ukrainian’s pets. She can help make a reunion possible and bring some joy to a few fellow Ukrainians in a dire situation. She can still do something, and she is fiercely and lovingly doing it. This, I am quickly discovering, is the spirit of Ukrainians.

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