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Saved by their animals. A Ukrainian couple tell how their dogs and cats softened the heart of a Russian soldier.

Yulia and Anton with their five dogs, who had been in the back of SUV as they all escaped. C. Paul Cainer.

By Paul Cainer in Chisinau, Moldova.

         Striding in to the courtyard of the Agudath Israel complex, a 29-year-Israeli breaks down in tears and recites the first six words of the Shema Yisrael. “Hear o Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one,” he declares. Apparently traumatised, his 29-year-old wife stands silently alongside him. 

The couple had just emerged from a Ukrainian-number-plated SUV.  Inside the vehicle were their travelling companions:  five large dogs at the back, two cats in a cat-cage on the passenger seat, and a caged difficult-to-spot ferret. 

Yulia and Anton with their five dogs, who had been in the back of SUV as they all escaped. C. Paul Cainer.

Anton and Yulia Lev later exclusively told us how they had endured an increasingly scary three weeks under the jackboot of Russian forces, and how their dogs and cats were the key to their survival … thanks to a Russian soldier who loved animals almost as much as they did.

They had all just undertaken a terrifying 10-hour escape from death: a “journey through hell”, as the Israeli described it. 

Anton and Yulia had met in Ukraine soon after Anton, who grew up in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, had finished his military service in Israel and was on his annual tiul.

“We married six years ago.  I worked in logistical support and creating call-centres for foreign businesses in Ukraine. Yulia taught social work in a college.  

“Later, despite our jobs, we decided to leave the city of Kyiv and move to the countryside because both of us had a real love for animals.  On our property, in a tiny village called Babyntsi, we also had several aquariums, one of them housing three small turtles.

“By February this year our new country house was nearly built – we’d even prepared a room for the child we planned to have. Then the Russians attacked Ukraine. 

“The first I heard of it was I got a frantic phone call from a friend at 5:30 in the morning, on the 24th of February: ‘They’re bombing Kyiv,’ he said.  I urged him to  come and take shelter at our house, in what I thought was a peaceful countryside area.

“From our field I could see across the river.  Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers started to roll by in what seemed like a never-ending procession. 

“They were also bombing the nearby aerodrome, where they destroyed Ukraine’s only two Antonovs. The Antonov AN-225 is the world’s largest plane. We used to see that plane flying right over us making a terrible racket, but now it’s gone forever – and the Russians also destroyed the Antonov factory. 

“At around that period, I saw a strange phenomenon. Some of the armoured vehicles in a long column turned around and headed back north. Then I saw helicopters circling over them and heard gunfire from above. I can speculate that maybe these were soldiers refusing to head to the front lines – so their own forces were shooting to force them to go the ‘right’ way.

 “On the 3rd day of the war, the electricity in our village disappeared. By then, we had lost count of vehicles on the convoy coming from Belarus. We decided to sleep in the very cold cellar, keeping a bit warmer by lying down on top of our harvest of potatoes. Some neighbours joined us each night. 

Putting on a brave face. Anton’s neighbours took this photo inside their cellar.  Anton deleted all his other pictures, fearing the Russians would at some stage confiscate his mobile phone.

“Then the Chechens rolled into the streets and demanded that people come out of their houses.  We were very afraid of them — they were known as killers.

“They moved into our neighbours’ houses, and made a big mess searching, but the stole nothing. They didn’t come into our house because it looked like it was not inhabited – the building work was still continuing. 

“The amazing thing was that our animals, especially our 5 dogs, who were downstairs, did not bark at all. I do not know what powers stopped them from barking.  Usually they bark like crazy at anything, but I sat and prayed that they keep quiet, and they did.

“In any case, in the houses that they did enter, the Chechens were only looking for weapons and did not loot. Amazingly, they were even kind to one neighbour who had only one lung after an operation. They gave him $100 USD and1,000 Russian roubles and they also gave food to the people who needed it.

“They had some code of honour.  They told the people: ‘We are mercenaries.  We’re professionals.  We’re not hitting civilians.’ 

“They continued going south, and we were sure that the worst was behind us. We were wrong.

“About 40 armoured personnel carriers rolled in to our village, about 25 miles outside Kyiv.  At first they just occupied empty houses where people had fled. They were just kids of 20 or 21 years old, and they looked hungry and cold.  

“Our neighbour gave them food — the same food that she provided for her cows. The soldiers were very grateful, even though it was actually cows’ food, and they were quite polite.  But much worse was yet to come. 

“A new group of Russian soldiers replaced them.

“The soldiers were getting more and more paranoid and accused us of knowing who was sending up flares from the nearby forest to call for Ukrainian counter-attack.  

“We were warned that unless we handed over the ‘traitor’ the Russians would smash our home up and either kill us all or take us captive.

“We’d by then heard rumours of rapes in the village, soldiers drunken on looting our home-made vodka were swivelling rifles without safety-catches on, and sometimes firing randomly.  We thought we were doomed.

“Days before, one Russian soldier had demanded food from us, as many of them were doing – underfed, without warm enough clothing and miserable from the freezing cold.  

“When he met our five dogs and our cat, the soldier, Andrei, changed completely.  He petted the animals, and started showing us pictures of his own cat and dog back in Russia.

 “The new commander was often drunk in the street, swaying with his machine gun and his men sometimes stole and drove civilian cars without tyres making grooves in the road. I suppose that was their idea of entertainment!

 “Later, they set up some big cannons and were shooting from near our house. We were inside our house, as the whole place was shaking. It was very frightening. Meanwhile, they were now breaking into occupied houses and started to take things.

“I started to pray and even found my tefillin – I’d brought them from Israel to Ukraine, but I had never worn them… till then.

“I decided, in the middle of this, that if we survived I should go back to Israel, and do teshuvah (repentance), to get strengthened. I was not religious, but in our Ukrainian village, I had to live.

“My neighbour saw me putting on these strange things and praying in Hebrew, and he said: ‘Please do it again. We need it. It probably works!’

“We were getting increasingly nervous though. For one thing, the soldiers – who often looted alcohol, were swigging our favourite local speciality, Saagon, a home-made vodka. 

“They were pointing rifles at women – often forgetting to put on the safety catch. They also looked at my wife like she’s a piece of meat. 

“They found out that I had an Israeli passport, and a soldier cursed me for being a Jew, because the president of Ukraine Volodimir Zelensky is Jewish. I never had to hide being Jewish from Ukrainians ever – they had never made me uncomfortable about it — so this was another shock. 

“I went into the street at one point and two soldiers asked me to tell them more about one of my neighbours.  They said that they knew that he is a Ukrainian policeman.  True, he had been a police officer, but he had retired 5 years ago. 

“What I didn’t tell them was that he and I had just recently moved all the diesel from our tractors and hidden it – the Russians had been searching for diesel to put in their armoured personnel carriers and were draining tractors to get the diesel. 

“These two guys never searched our house or looted us – it seems because one of them was happy to pet our dogs. He showed us photos of his own dogs on his mobile phone. And he told us he’s been  at a battle in a Ukrainian town near Kyiv where he saw an abandoned puppy Rottweiler, and felt so sad he could not pick it up and take the animal with him.

“Things changed quickly when the Russians heard gunfire from the forest nearby and were somehow convinced that my next-door neighbour was doing that, to send a signal to the Ukrainian Forces.     

 “They said that if I did not give accurate information on my neighbour’s activities by tomorrow morning, they were would be very serious consequences.  Then 25 soldiers smashed his door in and searched his house, but found nothing. 

“The next morning at 6 a.m. the soldier who liked our dogs came back alone.  He said it was extremely urgent that we should leave the house now and get out of the village — even though we were all under a curfew.  

“We hesitated but he insisted.  So we put provisions in our car — there was not much food for us but we loaded up 60 kilograms of food for the animals.  He came back again 40 minutes later, and said: ‘Don’t you understand?  Get out of this village now!  I’ve spoken to the guards, they won’t shoot.  Drive slower than 40 kph and keep your windows rolled down.’

“We took all five dogs, our cat, our ferret, but sadly we had to leave our rabbits, and the hedgehog we were nursing back to health after one of the dogs injured it.  

“Of course we could not take the three turtles.   We asked our neighbour to look after them; then, when they were big enough, to release them into the river.  She agreed. 

“Thinking this could be our last moments, we drove straight towards the nearest checkpoint.  That could have been the end for us.  But they did not shoot.  It seems the animal-loving Russian soldier must have arranged that they ignored us.  

“So as you see our animals, plus the Russian soldier’s love of dogs, saved us.

“When others saw us driving away a number of other cars came out and followed us, so they were also making a dash for freedom.  We hope most of them made it out.

“But we were later told Russians shot up at least one car, even though it had been draped with white sheets and a white flag and the word ‘Children’ written in big letters.  There were two adults and seven children in that car, all presumably dead.   

“We felt like, after we’d got past the first checkpoint, we would die at the next one or the one after that — if not from gunfire from the checkpoint, then bombing and shelling on the road itself.  We would become sitting ducks.

“It was a journey through hell.”

Yulia shudders as she remembers being freaked out by seeing dead bodies, and parts of bodies, hands or arms, strewn on the roadside.  And houses blasted with tanks or bombs.

“There were people on the side of the roads carrying little children pleading for a ride,” says Yulia.  “But our car was full.  We felt so bad.”

And Anton says he still cannot forget the sight of some of the dead soldiers.  “They were lying there with blackened skills.  Their skulls were  protruding from their army uniforms  – like something in a horror movie.

As we drove through the second village, which had a big V on the checkpoint,  I counted seven bodies of soldiers.  We saw the body of a child, and the body of an old lady. 

“We could see huge holes in houses.”

Yulia adds: “I tried to keep my eyes closed, and I was crying all the time.

“If you asked me what is hell like, that was hell.  No-one was picking them up the bodies or body parts, they just lay there along the road.”

Anton continues:  “After getting through three Russian checkpoints we suddenly saw the next checkpoint was manned by Ukrainians.  Thank G-d.  They looked astonished we’d got that far unharmed.  They told us now to drive like hell as there were many shells landing around them.

“It took us ten hours to reach the border.  Russian-speaking Baptist Evangelist Christians took us over into Moldova and gave us food, clothing, a roof over our heads, and even a Moldovan mobile sim-card.  

“After all the evil we saw, they were like a small point of light.  My faith in humanity started to return. 

“Two days later we drove to Chisinau, because Yulia had a friend who said maybe we could get flown from there to Israel.

In the safety of Chisinau, Anton and Yulia are all smiles, holding the Moldovan and the Israeli flags, left over from the Purim celebrations at Agudath Israel. C. Paul Cainer.

 “And once we got here I began to relax, being with Jews and with Israeli rescuers.  Seeing and hearing Hebrew, I started to cry.  I finally felt: wow, we’re safe.

“They’ve been fantastic at the Agudath Israel synagogue. They’ve got former veteran soldiers helping out, as well paramedics. And rabbis’ families. And volunteers, some from foreign countries.  

Yulia remains deeply worried about her mother, who is stranded in a basement as the Russians continue to pound their home city, not far from Odessa in Ukraine’s south west.  Her mother has refused to leave — since she needs to look after Yulia’s elderly grandparents.  The war for her is far from over.

Meanwhile Anton and Yulia are making plans for a new life.

“We’ve just bought cages for four of our five dogs, and the cats and the ferret.  And we hope in a month or so, once we’ve recovered, we’ll all be flown out on a charter plane taking refugees to Israel.  We’re just worried if we can afford to rent a place that can accommodate all our animals. 

“One dog is so old we cannot put her in the cargo, we’re insisting she must fly with us in the main part of the plane — otherwise we’re not going to leave.

“Of course all the animals have a right to come too: after all, they saved our lives!”