Elizabeth Hissa sits on a camp bed piled with blankets in a warehouse in Korczowa, Poland, talking animatedly about the tense evacuation from the war: the lights flashing in distant towns under bombardment, the rush through the Ukrainian countryside, the cries of fear, the hiding under seats.
he terror she describes is not her own but that of the three cats that followed her family on every step of their harrowing journey. Two are now purring from deep within the folds of Elizabeth’s big red winter jacket which she has arranged on the bed for them to lie on. The third peers from a carrier. They are doted on by Elizabeth, her mother Oksana and her grandmother, Lubov, who runs fingers through their soft fur as Elizabeth tells the story of how Russians invaded their home. They say they still cannot believe it is has happened. Her grandmother says: “It is like our heads are not capable of understanding.”
As they struggle to comprehend the brutal uprooting of their lives, the cats named Milka, Persig and Monica are now, more than ever, their comfort and their joy.
“The cats didn’t sleep or eat or toilet — nothing for two days. Then they came here. The first day it was like [they were in] shock. Now they are just sitting and sleeping all the time, they don’t even wander away,” she says.
Three weeks ago, they were getting on with their lives in Mykolaiv, a large port town in southern Ukraine, working, shopping, making plans. Lubov and Oksana worked at the hospital. Elizabeth worked as an assistant in the medical college and volunteered at an animal shelter. They read the news and watched Russian troops massing on the border but “nobody could believe that it was coming”, Elizabeth says.
“It was 5 in the morning. We were sleeping… I wake up and my boyfriend called me — he lives in Poland. He asked me what I’m doing. I said, ‘I’m asleep’. He said, ‘It’s war’. I said, ‘What? I don’t understand’. He tells me that Russia sent bombs on our country,” she says. “For two days it was like, ‘No, this can’t be true’. But when the first bomb came into our homes, into civilian areas, that was when people understood this was complete war.”
Mykolaiv was among the first cities attacked by Russian forces, pummelled with tank, artillery fire and air strikes, as Ukraine military fought to push them back. Elizabeth and her mother moved from their eighth-floor apartment into Lubov’s apartment because hers was on the first floor. When shells rained down, they huddled by the door, with the cats huddling beside them. “Every second you feel it’s going to hit your house and you pray,” she says. “I think the cats understand everything, they sat quietly, they were listening. Even now, you hear noises, and you think it is a bomb and they do too.”
The family escaped last weekend, running the gauntlet of shelling and artillery fire to get to the International Red Cross buses evacuating civilians to Odessa. From there they took the 12-hour train ride to western Ukraine and the Polish border and the vast refugee hub at Korczowa.
Several camp beds away from Elizabeth, Victoria Paladdii, and her daughter, Veronica (17) are frowning as they figure out buses that will take them to Germany. But their gentle husky, Rocky, sprawled on the floor, and a snappy Pomeranian, Masiya, propped on blankets, are stopping people in their tracks, and their owners break into smiles.
They fled Odessa after the air base was bombed and amid mounting expectation of a Russian assault from the sea. Rocky had been with them for a month — Victoria took him in as a rescue in need of urgent veterinary treatment for an enlarged prostate — but she could not countenance leaving him behind. On the long, fraught train journey to Lviv, Rocky exuded calm, sleeping on the floor beside her. It wasn’t just Victoria who benefited.
“The people who worked on board liked the dog very, very much, hugged him, kissed him, they are so lovely,” Victoria said, beaming with adoration but also close to tears. “We never imagined this would happen, we had a good job, we had a good life. I worked in hotel administration during the summer and in winter I work at designing clothes,” she says. “Everything is upside down. Everything has changed. You look at the other side of your life and you appreciate what you have.”
Tanya Sukhenico too credits her Pomeranian, Luna, with quietening her anxious daughter, Karolina (10) as they fled from Cherkasy, in central Ukraine on Monday.
“My daughter, she was running, when sirens went off, Luna too, oh, trembling. All night we did not sleep at home, no sleep. It was very scary, very scary,” she says. The little pocket dog, nestling in Karolina’s arms, was her release.
All across the warehouse teeming with thousands of displaced people, dogs and cats seem to suddenly pop up everywhere, bedding in and nestling down with their owners, all of them families displaced from their homes, many separated from loved ones, parents too old to leave or husbands, fathers, sons and brothers who have to stay and fight.
Asked how she feels, Elizabeth’s grandmother shakes her head and says in Ukrainian: “Shock, shock, shock.” Oksana’s expression is sombre. Elizabeth recalls with anger the fear of huddling in a doorway during shelling, not knowing “if there will be a tomorrow.”
When they look at their purring cats, curled up on their camp beds, their hands reach out to stroke them and just for a moment, they seem happy that the cats at least are happy.