Essays On War

Kateryna Mikhalitsyna. DOGS OF WAR


We make a stop in Izium, not far from the entrance to the city, to buy some snacks for the soldiers. As we step out of the car, we head towards a semi-collapsed shop. The sun is scorching our backs as we navigate the edge of the broken pavement, scattered with trash and grass. Along the way, we come across two scruffy-looking cats and a dog. The dog lifts his head and slowly makes his way toward me. His fur is a red shade reminiscent of the trees that line the road. Despite his age, he is still a loyal companion. I reach into my pocket, pull out a half-eaten bun, and share it with my new furry friends. Within seconds, three more hungry puppies come running toward us, eagerly hoping to get their paws on any food scraps they can find. Their hunger is palpable, and they are willing to do anything to satisfy it.

I offer them the remaining pieces of bread, and they eagerly lick their lips and beg for more. They want food, affection, or perhaps a combination of both. They look straight into my eyes, determined and unrelenting as if they know exactly why they chose me. It’s as if they’ve somehow sensed that, since February 24, my heart has been heavy with sorrow for the fate of dogs and their lives, even when all other emotions have been suppressed, and my body is functioning as nothing more than a mere shell stripped of its roles as a friend, partner, mother, or simply as a human being. Even when tragedies like Bucha, Mariupol, Olenivka, Izium, Oskil – every named and unnamed event – are etched into my personal register of the war or buried within the confines of my exhausted mind. I no longer recognize myself in the mirror or in my reactions. I feel adrift as if I’m inhabiting a body no longer my own. I have no idea what kind of person I’ll be once all the Russian soldiers have been driven out of our land. All I know is that since childhood, I’ve always shed tears over the plight of dogs and their lives. And now, this sensitivity is the only thread that connects who I used to be (the person I grew up to be for forty years, with all my scars and imperfections) to who I’m becoming. This one point of recognition allows me to hold onto my sense of self.

Even dogs are aware of this. They have a keen sense for that part of a forty-year-old woman’s mind where a ten-year-old suddenly bursts into tears because she can’t prevent her grandfather from striking a scruffy black dog named Beetle on the nose with his heavy boot instead of offering him food. The dog had looked at him with a trusting gaze, only to be struck down simply because he could demonstrate his power and authority. For the ten-year-old, it was a catastrophic event that shattered her sense of justice in the world. She felt a sharp sense of helplessness and fear of being small and powerless, unable to protect anyone—the images of the ten-year-old and the forty-year-old overlap. The fear of being small and powerless is magnified to the scale of an entire country, over which hangs a giant Russian boot, simply because someone wants to and can strike down to show an illusion of strength and power. A hundred and forty million demonic boots… They will not succeed. They will not trample what they aim for, but the cost of healing will be very high. Have I paid enough? Am I doing, investing, and feeling enough? Is the direction of my effort correct? And have the categories of „right“ and „wrong“ lost their relevance if you stand in the middle of a city and places that the Russian war has ravaged? 

The red-furred dog growls instinctively at the three others, putting them in their place. And he puts me in mine as well.

As we buy the soldiers a snack, I go the extra mile and use my last bit of cash to purchase a large cutlet. I share it with the area’s dogs and cats and urge my colleagues to do the same. While walking back to the car, the red-furred dog follows me hesitantly but with a glimmer of hope in his step. I sit down and explain to him through my tears that I cannot take him with me on our journey to Kapitolivka, nor can he accompany me on the long train ride to Lviv. It all feels so futile, and I apologize for my inability to help him and for the inhumane actions of the occupiers who destroyed his home. He tries to lick my hand, but I notice that he misses a few times, possibly due to a concussion. My eyes scan his body, and I see a wound on his right thigh, likely from shrapnel. Regret fills me as I curse myself for not bringing food and basic medical supplies on our journey. Despite my shortcomings, the dog licks my hand once more and rests his forehead on my palm.

I feel a sense of helplessness overwhelming me as I stare into the blurry eyes of the red-furred dog. He seems to see something in me that I can’t imagine, but what I see in his eyes reflects the harsh realities surrounding us. As I look deeper, I am reminded that the Askania-Nova preserve has already endured three wars for occupied territory, resulting in the destruction of vast areas of Red Data Book pine forests. The Kinburn Spit continues to burn, and the Black Sea has lost approximately 50,000 dolphins due to the sonar of Russian ships. Near Kharkiv, thousands of cows and calves lay dead, unburied, and forgotten. The Sirius shelter, situated in the territory of the Dymerska territorial community, was occupied for over a month, leaving the animals without access to food and medicine. At the Nikopol Chance for Life shelter, dogs die from heart failure, bullet wounds, or abandonment in Elena’s arms. At the same time, in Lviv, the Home of Rescued Animals welcomes new residents evacuated from different parts of the country. There, a llama named Dimon, who was brought from Zaporizhzhia, is finally learning to trust humans and has started eating again, a remarkable feat in these troubled times.

I find myself wondering where their unwavering trust comes from. How do they manage to renew it time and time again, and at what cost or resource? What have we done to earn it? While there are a select few among us who share the same language and bloodline, they are unfortunately too few in number.

As I look into the eyes of the red-furred dog from Izium, I gently run my fingers along his warm body, feeling the wound beneath my touch and his even breathing. I then settle into the car, taking his gaze with me as we drive away.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan