"I won't give up on the abandoned dogs of Ukraine"

a woman holding a dog
"I won't give up on the animals of Ukraine"Irina Bas

The first dog I ever rescued was an old Irish terrier, who I found with matted white fur in knots over his skinny frame. I spotted him abandoned and hungry while driving past some disused buildings, and took him home to my countryside house in Valuiske, Eastern Ukraine. There, he had land to play in and my three children to dote on him. We named him Sioma and, as the weeks went by, his legs grew stronger, his fur untangled, and he became part of our family.

I’ve always tried to give back, whether that’s feeding stray dogs or organising donations for a local orphanage. I believe we all have a duty to help wherever we can – humans and animals alike. As a single parent, it’s a value I’ve instilled in my children; Alina, Andrey and Semen. I had a successful career in business, establishing a supermarket chain across Ukraine, meaning I was able to send my eldest children, Andrey and Semen, to be educated in the UK. I built us all a dream home on the edge of a forest and, when the boys came home each school holiday, I’d make my famous borscht stew while they played with their sister, our two dogs and our in the sunny grounds.

voices from ukraine bas dogs
Left: Irina with one of the 80 dogs in her care. Right: Irina and her daughter, Alina and two of their dogs.Irina Bas

Then, in 2014, Russia invaded our country to annex Crimea (a peninsula in the south of Ukraine) and occupied various areas including Luhansk, the city next to our village. For the following eight years, our house thankfully remained on the Ukrainian side of the new ‘border’, but Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 changed everything. My sons, then 26 and 29, were living and working in London at the time, while Alina, 21, and I were at home in Ukraine. Our village ended up in the centre of the fighting, and we sheltered in the basement as rockets were fired directly over our house. It’s a miracle our home wasn’t completely destroyed, or that we managed to survive at all. Many people were killed or fled their homes during the early conflict, and Russian soldiers moved into our neighbours’ abandoned or damaged homes as they took control of the area. We now live under their occupation.

voices from ukraine bas dogs
Sioma (left) when he was first rescued and (right) after becoming part of the Bas family.Irina Bas

Most people fleeing the conflict were only able to take a few possessions with them and I watched, devastated, as pets were frequently left behind. But, when you are faced with a life and death situation, difficult decisions have to be made. I’d always fed strays if I came across them, and took in a few abandoned dogs during the 2014 conflict, but the escalation in 2022 meant there was suddenly a huge influx of animals needing help. I couldn’t bear to see once much-loved pets now alone and suffering. So, over the next two years, Alina and I began rescuing abandoned or stray animals, and now care for 80 dogs and 15 cats. Our house evolved into a make-shift shelter, which we named Bas Dogs.

As the numbers grew, friends helped us build enclosures and kennels in the garden. We house dogs together based on various factors, such as whether they have been neutered or not, what their temperament is like and which other dogs they get on with. Some are domesticated enough to live with us in the house, while the cats have taken over the boiler room in the basement, where it’s warm and they can use the small window as their cat flap.

voices from ukraine bas dogs
Left: Three puppies in one of the garden enclosures. Right: Some of the dogs are domesticated enough to live inside the house.Irina Bas

Word got around in the local area and people would tip me off about animals they’d seen in need. Many we found were living in the ruins of destroyed houses, or in scrap yards amongst the remnants of damaged tanks and other conflict-related rubble. I followed one stray through a compound she was living in to a litter of freshly born puppies. It was snowing and the middle of winter, so they were starting to freeze. I wrapped the puppies in my jumper and took them back to the car with me, their mother in tow. However, not all dogs are so willing to accept help and it can take even as long as six months to gain their trust – I’ve had my share of bites and scrapes in the process. Other dogs live together in packs so, as long as they’re not injured or in need of immediate care, I’ll drop off food and bowls of water each day where they gather, rather than taking them back to the house.

voices from ukraine bas dogs
Left: Animals need varying levels of care when they are taken in. Right: A litter of puppies and their mother found by Irina.Irina Bas

The animals we do take in come to us in a variety of states. We’re only 40 kilometres from the frontline, so some are ‘shell-shocked’ by the explosions or have bleeding ears. Others have cuts and wounds, or even missing limbs, and most are thin and hungry. We got to know the local vets well, as we took various animals to receive their care. By observing the vets working, I gradually learned how to do some of the common procedures myself, like treating and closing wounds. For more complicated treatments or operations such as neutering, we still need to take them to the clinic, which is expensive, but the staff support our work by giving us the cheapest rates they can.

Even so, meeting just the basic costs to care for all the animals we shelter is difficult. Unable to continue my job due to the conflict, I took up maths tutoring online and sold my jewellery and other possessions to cover some of the costs. My sons help where they can and kind people send small financial donations or leftover food, which we are always grateful for. It’s heart-warming to see others willing to offer support even in the middle of a conflict, and when they often have so little.

voices from ukraine bas dogs
Left: Irina and some volunteers regularly take food and water for strays. Right: Three of the 15 cats cared for by Irina and Alina.Irina Bas

When I tell people that Alina and I care for nearly 100 animals, it’s difficult for them to imagine just how much work that is. We feed the dogs twice a day, with dry biscuits (adding crushed medicine where needed) or with expired baby formula if they’re young puppies or particularly weak. We try to give bones to the bigger dogs when we can afford to and, once the animals at the house are fed, walked and medically treated, I’ll head off to leave food for strays. I have a couple of volunteers who now help me feed the animals each day at the local market and military checkpoints, where we know various packs tend to gather. Even with occasional help from kind friends and volunteers, it’s a physical and emotional struggle to keep going. We can’t leave the house even for a couple of days because there is no one to take over. However, I believe I have a responsibility to look after the animals in my care, no matter how difficult it gets, and seeing them heal and start to thrive keeps me going.

voices from ukraine bas dogs
Left: Irina refuses to give up on the animals left behind in the conflict. Right: Her daughter, Alina, with one of the dogs they care for.Irina Bas

Sioma, the first dog we ever rescued, finally passed away peacefully from old age last October. He died at home with Alina and I, and his four-legged friends, surrounded by love. I hope to see every animal we care for adopted one day, so they can bring their new family the same joy and companionship, and receive all the love they deserve. For now, I might not know how long we’ll be caring for these animals, when the war will end or even when my family will be together again, but I do know that I won’t give up.

Translator: Andrey Ievstratov

To find out more about Bas Dogs, find them on Instagram or visit: XXXX

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