Interview: Irina Petrova, who evacuated from Mariupol with 30 dogs

Irina and her dogs escaped Mariupol
Irina Petrova with her dogs

Yuliya Strizhkina interviews Irina Petrova, a resident of Mariupol, member of Ukrainian Kennel Union and owner of Chihuahua kennel “IZ DOMA PETROFF”. Like many others, Irina evacuated from the destroyed city – and took 30 of her dogs with her. Her story is about the pain, loss, horror and fear that enveloped Ukraine with the advent of war.

What was your life before the war?

Before the war, I had a good life. I had everything: a big beautiful bright house, a wonderful job, Chihuahua dogs, a favorite business. We visited dog shows and lived, as it turns out, very well and happily until the 24th of February came.

On February 24, we woke up from the explosions. We were attacked from several sides. There was no evacuation, there were no corridors, there was nothing. The city was abandoned and plundered. People were all confused, did not know what to do. First, the light disappeared, then communication and water, the gas disappeared the last – life began to resemble primitive. One began to cook on fires.

“Since the beginning of the war, I was at home with my bedridden mother, so I could not leave or go anywhere. The dogs were with me too”

It was also scary because there was no connection with children and relatives. We did not know who, where, which status our city had. I could not walk far, because I have two artificial hip joints and it is hard to walk. I was also afraid to drive a car, because the transport was taken away. Sometimes my brother came, and I learned information from him.

Where did you hide during the bombings? Where were the dogs?

Since the beginning of the war, I was at home with my bedridden mother, so I could not leave or go anywhere. The dogs were with me too. There was enough space for everyone. The dogs were afraid to go out because of the constant shelling. When there was no light, I had to close them in enclosures, because I was afraid to fall and get hurt in the dark, and there was no one to pick me up.

Do I understand correctly that during a month while you were in Mariupol, the dogs did not go outside and all their natural needs were taken care of in the house?

Yes. I had 30 dogs, six of them were old and five puppies. It was impossible to take them outside. They were very afraid. Even when, in rare pauses between shelling, I carried them in my arms, they rushed home.

Irina with one of her dogs

Shortly before the evacuation your mother died. Were you able to bury her?

No. Mom died quietly, peacefully. I closed her eyes, read a prayer, but physically I could not bury her myself, and there was no one around. Mom stayed in bed. Later, when I asked the neighbors, they took her to the barn, because it was not possible to bury her in the cemetery because of the shelling.

But the Lord foresaw otherwise… the barn collapsed from the shelling, and my mother was buried under the rubble. I hope when we return, and we shall return, that we shall give the body of my mother to the earth. This duty hangs on me, and I shall fulfill it.

“After the rain and snow, we collected water from drainpipes, boiled it too and used for domestic needs”

When did the possibility of evacuation finally arise?

After the death of my mother, my daughter took me to her. There was a house of her sister-in-law across the street from her house too. In total, 40 people were hiding in these two houses. I also added. This is how we collectively survived.

Young people went for water. We began to find out where and what sources, streams are. When there was a frost and snow fell, we collected it from cars, drowned it, boiled and drank it. After the rain and snow, we collected water from drainpipes, boiled it too and used for domestic needs. Young people looked for food from dealers at exorbitant prices and ate what everyone could take with them before.

We ate once a day. In the morning we drank tea and coffee. And baked our own bread. Our people will not disappear anywhere. We dug a hole in the ground and laid the bricks. There were those who kneaded the dough, found the molds, and the men baked. It was a real bread.

Once every 2-3 days we went out to feed the dogs that stayed in my house. We poured a lot of food, poured water … Of course, they were terribly afraid.

God had mercy on us, but the neighboring houses have already been bombed. We were very worried about the cars which were parked in the yards under the open sky, and the bombing intensified and approached. There was no exit from the city. People drove up to the Drama Theatre, it was a center for obtaining information, they stood for days and waited for the exit, but the opportunity did not arise.

And then one fine day we found out that one column had passed. The next day my son-in-law told me: “You have an hour.” I rushed to the dogs. I have a station wagon, folded the seats and threw dogs from all the enclosures, counted them and was very afraid not to forget anyone. Before that, I walked with a stick, but here I just carried two dogs and threw them through the door into the car. They rode in bulk, on top of each other.

“My dogs were in the trunk all this time. At night we got up, warmed up the car so that they would not freeze”

I managed to load the food and captured all their documents by some miracle, but I didn’t take anything for me, only one bag with women’s belongings. No carriers, no couches, nothing from the ammunition for dogs came out to take. I was very afraid to delay our departure and disrupt the evacuation. Plus I did not just go out with dogs, but also took out people.

I closed the house, and we went into the unknown. We drove more than two days to Zaporizhzhya.

We left Mariupol in a column, for a very long time. We were not shot. There was no enough fuel and nowhere to fill the car with it. Many had money on cards. There was no cash, and a card is a useless thing in this situation. Personally, I drove to Berdyansk and that’s it, the gasoline was over. One began to cling to the tugboat. Those who had gas pulled those who ran out of it. My daughter dragged me in tow. It was a first for both her and me. It was frosty at -7 degrees Celsius.

I had one more seat in the car, and I picked up a woman on the way. And this is how the Lord sees everything: when my daughter was towing me at night, I was very scared, the car was uncontrollable, the engine did not work, the glass froze, we had to thaw it, there were checkpoints all around, no longer ours… And it turned out that the son of the woman  I was carrying was driving in another car of our column. He got behind the wheel of my car, and we drove in a completely different way.

We reached Tokmak and there we were placed in our Ukrainian monastery. The monks sheltered us, fed, we spent the night there, ate. It was very nice. Simple food, but we were so hungry… and when we ate, it was so warm and good. And they fueled us!

My dogs were in the trunk all this time. At night we got up, warmed up the car so that they would not freeze. There were blankets in the car, so they were comfortable.

And we drove on. We arrived to Zaporizhzhya. No adventure for us, but 5 cars that followed us were wrecked. The hand of the Lord was over us…

In Zaporizhzhya, we were met by friends, the family of Tatiana and Vladimir Doronin. Very soulful people. They brought us fuel, two bags of food for the dogs, ammunition, drinkers and most importantly, they took my puppies. Those children who grew up in the dark, did not see white light and practically did not move. The two older ones were placed in good hands. The rest are growing up, already getting rid of rickets, because due to the lack of light and impossibility of movement, such a problem has arisen. They also brought a pot of warm soup. We all ate, it was so nice, and drove on.

During your journey you made a post on Facebook. What was it about and what did it lead to?

When we escaped, saw Ukrainian flag and Ukrainian soldiers, we cried. And so, I forgot to say that when we drove up to Zaporizhzhya and stood in a line for entry, volunteers and soldiers gave us food. They just shoved food, jars of stewed meat and cookies through the windows. They asked where were the children – and brought sweets there. You see, people rallied so much and became sincere, that we cried.

And when being already in Zaporizhzhya I made a post on Facebook, that we were alive, I took all my dogs out, a little shabby, dirty, what else could they be after a month in aviaries? – people began to write me, call and ask how to help, send money, support and rejoice from different parts of our country and from abroad. And when you feel this sincere support, you know, you want to live. A second wind opens, and you understand that life is not over.

“I cried for every dog, as if I was giving away my child. fortunately no one heard”

A friends from Odessa, also a breeder and owner of a kennel, when she found out that we were going to Kremenchuk, because my children have good friends there, she threw a cry on Facebook asking for help in placing. Completely unfamiliar to me people from Kremenchuk responded very quickly. The most wonderful Julia Shumskaya and her husband Kostya Dotsenko took us in and placed all my dogs in their room, an attached kitchenette on the second floor in an industrial area. There were no enclosures, there was nothing, we unloaded these dogs, everyone was stunned.

Then the question arose: so many dogs, 30 of them, what to do with them? How to contain them? We were in an alien city. We didn’t really know what to do.

And I can’t even imagine how people found out, perhaps someone made a post on Facebook, but people began to call me and offer their help: local volunteers gave two large cages, began to bring people to take my animals and literally in a matter of days 10 of the dogs were sorted out.

At the moment when you gave your dogs, how did you feel?

I was aware that I might be giving them away forever. My heart ached and my soul was torn – but I also understood that I owe these suffering animals to give a happy life so that they, if possible, forget the horror they experienced and could live a full life.

I cried for every dog, as if I was giving away my child, fortunately no one heard.

How are they doing now?

The dogs ended up in great families. I gave them away for free, as long as the dogs were accepted, entered the family and were loved. The only thing I asked people for: if it doesn’t work out, and if you suddenly realize that this is not your dog, please, return it.

Nobody returned. In general, I will not take back all the dogs which were given away. People gave them their souls; they gave their hearts. These are not puppies, but adult dogs, children of war, with a broken psyche, with their own difficulties. Some have problems with the toilet. But when all this has been overcome, and they are loved, let them live happily in new families. And I calmed down. I stopped crying.

Was there a moment when it seemed that everything is over and there is no more strength to fight?

To say that everything is over, we are at the bottom – no, this was not the case. And it happened thanks to the support of people. Ukraine has rallied to such an extent… Here, I’m talking now, but I have “goosebumps” on my skin. Probably, it was necessary to survive in this war and find yourself in these conditions in order to understand what wonderful people we have.

You mentioned your house in passing enough. We know from the media that almost 90% of the city has been destroyed. From your words, I understood that today your house doesn’t exist no longer. Is it true?

True. There is no house, it is broken and burned down completely. I have nothing. Our entire street was on fire. The daughter does not have a part of the house either. My brother has no roof and no apartment. There is nowhere to return, but we shall return anyway.

“She got out, dug up her son, and only later dug up the dogs. Couldn’t do that right away. She did this for about five days”

You probably know the fate of other cynologists from Mariupol. Tell about them.

Of those who have chihuahua kennels, I know only one person who also managed to get out. At the same time, if we were able to escape safe and sound, then Natalya Korovanenkova, the owner of «The Sun of The Water» kennel, has a much more tragic situation.

She lived in a nine-story building on the 7-th floor, and a shell flew towards them. She, her son and four of her dogs were buried in. She got out, dug up her son, and only later dug up the dogs. Couldn’t do that right away. She did this for about five days. Gathered her strength and walked again. Now she is in Nikopol, the dogs are all alive. I know that it was extremely difficult to leave, she is in a very dejected state.

About other breeders of my breed… I know that one of them is still in Mariupol without transport, she cannot leave, and for this she needs a minibus. Her daughter tries very hard to find someone, but does not come out. Due to heavy shelling of the city, no one agrees. But she is there, alive, with the dogs.

It is a very big problem to deliver humanitarian aid to Mariupol, Russians don’t let it through. The issue of feed is especially acute.

Irina’s broken home in Mariupol

Another kennel, I won’t say which one, has an absolutely tragic situation. Kennel of champion dogs, dogs of the highest class. Direct hit – no house, no dogs. The owners wrote on Facebook about what had happened, and did not get in touch again. I sympathize with them very much and cannot express how much it hurts.

As far as I also know, many have left. Unfortunately, someone was forced to leave towards Russia. It was possible to leave from the left coast in the direction of Russia only. Some ended up in Novoazovsk and further to the territory of DPR and then to Russia, but I believe that this is temporary, because people are trying to return back with all their might. Unfortunately, a forced export is present.

Have you been able to find the answer to the question of how to live on?

This is the biggest question for today. I don’t have an answer to it. Everything will depend on what tomorrow will be like. It’s not all bad now. We were offered a small country house without amenities, in which we settled down with my dogs. One made an aviary on the street for my dogs – it is so small, but at the same time it is a great happiness that dogs can walk on the street and move freely. The problem is that we can’t winter in this house. It is the summer one. Therefore, the issue of finding housing in Kremenchuk or its environs is very acute, because my relatives are nearby.

“The most important thing is that we are alive”

Now I have 20 dogs, so it’s not easy to find something. No one will let me in an apartment with so many dogs. We clearly understand that we will have to spend the winter in Kremenchuk, firstly, because there is nowhere to return, and secondly, because I think everything will not end yet. And this is by far the most pressing issue.

Unfortunately, I lost my job. Before all this, I worked for 35 years at Mariupolgaz. It was a wonderful enterprise, great people and an excellent job. But… It will be probably difficult to find a job here in Kremenchuk.

The most important thing is that we are alive.

Contacts for those who can help pets from Mariupol and other affected regions of Ukraine:

Interview conducted by: Yuliya Strizhkina
Chief editor: Japanese Spitz SIMBA TSAR ZVEREI
Images courtesy of Irina Petrova


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