Once upon a time there was a farmer with 10 sheep, a beekeeper with 41 hives (and turtles) and a cook with 62 birds and peacocks. And they all lived quietly in the fields and meadows of a place called Donbass.
But then came the Russian invaders from the north and east, missiles landed around them and the farmer, beekeeper and chef prepared to leave their homes, joining millions of other Ukrainians in an exodus that became the biggest crisis of immigrants to Europe since World War II.
With their owners ready to go, where would the sheep, bees (and turtles), pheasants and peacocks go?
The answer was Green Grove, a farm and ranch in a rural corner of the Ukrainian countryside that has become a sudden haven for an ever-expanding stable of war-displaced animals – and for some of the people who can not stand that part. those.
As the conflict in Ukraine entered its fourth month and the Russian army penetrated deeper into the east of the country, residents saw their lives turned upside down and their homes destroyed in heavy artillery fighting that erupted over the towns and villages of Donbasit.
But war emergencies forced many to leave their pets behind. In the East’s open farmland, that means fewer cats, dogs, and other abandoned animals in large fenced cities like Kiev, and more of the less transportable working animals that are livelihoods if not society.
After arriving in the Dnipro, the central Ukrainian city that has become the main crossing point for those fleeing the east, people with animals often find their rescuers in Evgenia Molchanova, 31, the tireless woman who owns and operates Green Grove with her husband saj, Anatoliy. Pilipenko.
“When the war started, we thought we should do it because there was no shelter that could take these animals without paying,” said Molchanova, who wore white jeans and a Green Grove blouse and shirt.
“What money can you take from people who do not have a home?” We decided to get them for free. ”
This decision transformed the 14-month-old farm of Molchanova and Pilipenko into Hotel Rwanda from an animal species. In addition to the aforementioned guests, the menu now includes dozens of sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, geese, African chickens and other species of birds, rabbits, dogs, cats and a pair of emu, with new additions each week.
Of course this raises questions about organization and management. Can you keep rabbits around dogs? Where to place the exotic birds of the Askania Nova reserve, brought from Kherson occupied by Russia in the south? Is there room for 18 horses near Severodonetsk? Where will you put all the sheep?
In March, a man brought us a crocodile. “I told him I did not know what to do with him, so he asked me if we had a jacuzzi,” Molchanova said with a tired smile. They ended up sending the reptile to a zoo in western Ukraine.
Like millions of people in Ukraine, the animals in Green Grove have borne the physical and psychological wounds of war.
There was DiShiKa, a black-haired man with irritated-looking wounds that tore his fur on his back. Its original owner has disappeared in Donetsk province; Some soldiers took him, called him the heavy machine gun DShK and let him sleep in one of their tents when the Russian bombs fell on their position. The mattress was set on fire in the tent, leaving traces on the back.
The other wounds are not visible. Some of the horses, Molchanova said, would bend to the ground from exhaustion whenever they heard the sound of an airplane flying overhead.
“When they came here, the windows in the horse-drawn carriage were broken – and the damage of the war,” she said.
A constant presence around Molchanova was the Fiesta, the golden carrier whose owners fled in March to Germany from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, a frequent target of Russian bombing. They left Fiesta with their friends in the Dnipro, who desperately turned to Facebook to find a home for it. Molchanova extended her term and offered her a place in Green Grove.
“In the beginning she needed shots to calm her down. Molchanova said she could hear a loud and faint noise. She looked happy now, as long as she did not leave Molchanova’s arm.
She engaged some of her fellow villagers in trying to help the newcomers adjust.
“Our neighbors here are perfect. “They’ve been taking dogs, cats and rabbits as pets for weeks, just give them love before they bring them back here,” she said, looking at the Fiesta.
“It’s the best rehabilitation, love is.”
It seems impossible for Molchanova and Bilibenko when she was a teenager, Molchanova working for her father’s car dealer in the Dnipro before deciding to join a college student exchange program that took her to Anchorage. There she learned cheese making and returned as a student to various cheese factories across Europe.
In 2014, following protests in the capital, Kiev, at the head of Ukraine’s then friendly presidency, Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists who fought for control of Donbas. After taking part in the demonstrations, Molchanova volunteered to go to the front line, initially heading to a military hospital in Dnipro for training.
Here I met Bilibenko, the 51-year-old veteran who fought in Afghanistan and elsewhere with the Soviet Air Force. He was assigned to teach the young recruits.
“After two weeks we lived together. “That’s it,” said Molchanova.
When a shaky ceasefire went into effect in 2016, they moved to the Czech Republic, where Pilipenko had a dried fruit import company. A year before the epidemic broke out, they decided to buy a plot of land in the village of Dnipro. When the coronavirus blockages started, they went home.
“The work was good in the Czech Republic, but my heart is always here in Ukraine. There is no better place for me. This is how I feel. “And my husband felt the same way,” Molchanova said. “Our dream was to have a great view, a nice coffee … something that would inspire us to get up early in the morning.”
In March last year, they opened Green Grove, a place for Molchanova to make and sell cheese, with a café and zoo for those few sheep and goats they need for milk. They called the institution the name of the village – Zelenyi Hai, in Ukrainian.
Since then, new arrivals due to the war have forced a rapid expansion although visitors continue to arrive to enjoy the animals – which Molchanova believes are more important than ever.
“We used to travel for money, but now it’s free for everyone. “We are open to anyone who wants to come here and be with the animals,” she said, adding that more than 1,000 children have visited the country since the beginning of the war. “It’s good for us and for the animals too.”
Away from animals, Green Grove has also become the home of several people fleeing the Donbas and is now at the center of Russia’s attack. In the house of Molchanova’s grandmother lives a family from Lysychansk, one of the last districts of Luhansk province in the hands of Ukrainians.
“He came with five dogs and two cats. She said.
Beauty Anya Savchenka, 32, fled with her family from the town of Soledar, 140 miles east of the Dnipro, in April. Now she, her parents, husband, daughter and grandchildren are involved in the maintenance of the farm.
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Savchenka’s father and husband were busy behind a barn repairing an old-fashioned push tractor. In addition, her nephews made Egyptian pumpkin puree for pigs, while her daughter, 3-year-old Yesenia, was thrown into the sheep tub under Savchenka’s mother’s eye.
“Betty was still intact when I left, but she was getting more and more serious. So we came here, as there is still a way to go west if we need to, Savchenka said, huddling to put some food in a cage with some small rabbits.
It was a “big change” for Savchenka, but she seemed to like it – she now plans to open a pet salon.
“A good beauty salon with manicure and hairdressing,” she said with a smile.
With its green pastures, clear skies, and an unbroken chorus of sheep and goats, the green bush may seem to occupy another dimension compared to most of the miserable country.
But the conflict continues to intervene. Last month, Ukrainian air defenses shot down a Russian cruise missile that rained down shrapnel near Green Grove. Such moments make Bilibenko, who is shown a notebook with his photos as a soldier, want to join the war.
Molchanova insists she needs him to stay with her and their daughters Ivanka, 7, and Ulyana, 2.
“I can not do this alone,” she said.
In her coffee hand, she stood on the balcony of the Green Grove store and looked at one of the packages where a chestnut brown horse was galloping to the edge of the fence. Bees were chased in their hives, peacocks swayed, and sheep grazed quietly through the fields.
What would be her “eternal happiness”?
“In the future, I do not want animals to have chains or fences. They should be free. I think this place will serve as a sanctuary, she said, pausing for a moment to look at the landscape.
“I love my dreams.”